osewalrus (osewalrus) wrote,

Quick Observation on the Solstice Day Ideas

Prompted in part by a thread on mamadeb's site, I actually got curious about this notion that "everyone" has some kind of solstice holiday.

Actually, as far as I can tell, large numbers of people don't.

From what I can tell, solstice holidays tend to pop up where you have very significant divergences in daylight between seasons and a growing season/hunting season closely associated with the solar variations. Cultures with different agriculture/hunting schedules don't tend to have them.

This is why most indigenous Middle Eastern cultures don't go in for solstice festivals, nor do big parts of Asia (although cultures based on the Chinese calendar, which has a winter solstice festival, do). They have a growing season based on a rainy season (or, in Egypt, the annual run off of the Nile associated with the spring melt up river).

However, Europe happens to be one of those geographic areas where solstice is a big deal in terms of light and crops and game. The result is that a lot of Euro-centric scholarship, of both the serious kind in the 18th and 19th century and the neo-pagan kind of the 20th century, pushes the whole solstice meme as universal.

Here's a clue. Most cultures get that the sun is coming back. Really. People have memories and all that. Depending on where you went to school and what sources you read, you're likely to have different concepts of why cultures have various religious and ritual observances. I personally (when wearing my secular hat) like the idea that it is based around trying to develop a feeling of control over critical life functions that are beyond control. (In college, I was impressed by a study showing that baseball players have the greatest number of superstitious rituals around batting, and the least around fielding.) But it fits a pattern of tying ritual to beginning of harvest, end of harvest, changes in season when entering a period of plenty or fast.

So for geographic regions in which the winter solstice coincides with the darkest time of year and the time when you are starting to seriously dig into stored food and even game starts getting scarce, a holiday to perk up the spirits and exercise control over the environment makes sense. But in a geographic region where the solstice has little impact, it really doesn't show up.

Which brings us to Israel and its geographic climate. Israel has a rainy season, beginning in the fall and ending usually in late February/Early March. Unsurprisingly, Judaism front loads lots of holidays -- including major rituals related to the coming of the rains -- in September/October (Tishrei). We the get a long break from any holidays mentioned in the Bible until Passover, when we have the first crop in (wheat). The next holiday is closely associated with the next harvest (barley), and the third with the fruit harvest and remaining harvests.

I should point out this isn't anything sneaky or hidden in the Bible. To the contrary. Wearing my religious hat, the entire point of these holidays to recognize that the bounty of the land flows directly from God. The ceremonies associated with the harvest are entirely about (a) nation building, and (b) recognizing God as the Supreme King responsible for all good stuff. Anyone familiar with feudal ritual and form will note significant similarities between certain rituals involvng food and the harvest and feudal rituals designed to emphasize both the personal relationship between the feudal lord and the tenant and that ultimate possession of the land lies with the lord.

But solstice just don' figure into it. It's in the rainy season, and not of particular relevance.

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