There are two cycles within the Christian year: one is dependent upon the Sun; and the other, the more ancient cycle, is dependent upon the Moon. The major cycle of festivals, and by far the longer of the two, is the ancient one based on the phases of the moon, and that is the Easter cycle. It runs from the beginning of February to the end of October, and these two dates are the only fixed points within it. All the other dates, from the Sundays before Lent, through Ash Wednesday to Easter, and Easter through to Ascension, Pentecost (Whitsun), Trinity Sunday and the Sundays after Trinity, are never on the same date, one year to the next. Being based on the phases of the moon, they do not fit neatly into the calendar that is the solar year. The Lunar year is 354.367056 days, about 11 days shorter than the Solar year.
I call it an ancient calendar because the most ancient calendars are based upon the moon (a year of 12 lunar months being more obvious to the naked eye than the daily progression of the position of the Sun setting on the horizon). This is one of the reasons why we know that Easter was celebrated by the earliest Christians who were using a Jewish, lunar-based calendar. It was only when Christianity had become Roman that Christians first started to celebrate that other great festival based upon a Roman, solar calendar. Of course, I’m speaking about Christmas.
It is often repeated in the media that Christmas is not really a Christian festival, but a festival “stolen” from pre-Christian religions. I think that such an assertion is both right and wrong, but mainly wrong! To say that it has been stolen from Paganism is to mis-understand how religions work. They are often borrowing from what came before, and indeed borrowing from the other religious cultures around them. If they are religions with a story to tell, and Christianity is one such religion, then anything that helps to tell the story better will be made use of. Moreover, the central element of the Christian story is the Incarnation, not “God out there” but “God in here with us”, .inhabiting all of our other stories.
Mid-winter in the North is a dark time, but at some point the position of the sunset on the horizon stops moving towards the South-West; indeed, to the naked eye it appears to stop moving and remains in the same spot for several days. The ancient solstices (sun- stoppings) were not one day but many days (hence twelve days of Christmas). Having reached its most southerly point, the sun begins to move back towards the West and the North; a re-birth of the Sun in the dark depths of winter.
For a religion like Christianity, with its story of a birth and a light shining in the darkness, which the darkness cannot overcome, which re-members an ancient prophesy in which the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light, any ancient, mid-winter festival is a gift to the story-teller.
Vicar’s thoughts for December 2017