Centuries before the birth of Jesus, the tribal people of northern Europe spent this time of the year anxiously awaiting the lengthening of the days which would herald the sun's readiness to regenerate and warm them once again. They worshipped the sun as the source of life. For them, winter meant cold and death, whereas summer meant warmth and life. This was not all that fanciful since a long winter and a late spring could be depended upon to take a heavy toll.
And so it was that they followed their instincts and developed rituals and rites with the intention of pleasing and, if necessary, pacifying the sun god. One of these was the occasional burning of tapers on a circular, wheel-like fixture. It was an effective sign of light and warmth as well as of faith and hope in the recurring seasons that made life possible. But sooner or later the tapers would shrink and sputter and fires would be reduced to embers and the long freezing nights would begin to claim the lives of the weakest.
The first Christian missionaries to penetrate these northern latitudes had the common sense not to suppress this deeply rooted custom. What they did was to endow it with a new and greater significance. This is how the Advent Wreath came to be a visible herald of yet another deity. This time, not "The sun god" but rather, "The Son of God." This is why we celebrate His birth in the very depths of winter when the days are, at long last, beginning to lengthen.
Even now after generations of enlightenment both of a religious and of a technical nature, those of us who are very young and insecure or old and troubled often dread the long dark periods between sunset and sunrise. Is it simply in our bones to do so? Darkness seems to breed despair, anxiety and the many faces of fear. Turning on the light helps, but only to a point.
"I am the light of the world," said Jesus.
This is the light that we knowingly or unknowingly crave. This is the only light that truly satisfies. Every other light will sooner or later go out ...even the sun.
A lot has happened since those ancients huddled around their guttering tapers, dreading the spectre of death that accompanied every winter's night. Just think of the technical advances in energy production and food processing, housing, travel, medicine and communications that are slowly becoming common place in our world ...and yet clear reflections of the long ago fears felt by long ago people still remain to haunt and disturb even members of privileged societies such as our own. Could it be that these advances fail to even approach the significance of the birth of that one little boy in Bethlehem? "...on a cold winter's night that was so deep."