Exploring the collections of the Mercantile Library:

The Darkness and the Light: Winter Solstice & the Holidays
On Monday, December 21, 2020, at 4:02 a.m. Central Standard Time, the Northern Hemisphere will usher in the Winter Solstice. It is the exact moment when the sun reaches the Tropic of Capricorn, and we have our shortest day and longest night of the year. And while it has long been associated with Christmas, the Winter Solstice has been celebrated since thousands of years before the birth of Christ. People the world over have honored the rising of the Midwinter sun from time immemorial. It inextricably links us to our ancestors, to nature, and to one another in a way which transcends cultural and religious differences. Some traditions have been lost to time, but so many live on through us today – whether we realize it or not.

This is by no means an exhaustive list:
  • Many prehistoric and Neolithic sites are oriented to capture the sun at the Solstice. Newgrange in Ireland, Stonehenge in England, Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, and the Mayan pyramid at Kukulkan in Mexico are just a few examples.
  • In China, Winter Solstice was historically the day the Emperor led annual sacrifices to the gods in the Temple of Heaven in Peking. When the monarchy fell in 1912, the old rituals were no longer observed; however, the Solstice is still treated as a holiday in Hong Kong. People make offerings to ancestors and may serve large family feasts.
  • In Japan, the Solstice is known as Toji and is particularly sacred to farmers. People take holidays, light bonfires to encourage the sun to return, and honor ancestors. Pumpkins are also eaten at this time, as they are considered good luck.
  • Many of our current traditions are derived from the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia, the Midwinter ritual of fun, laughter, and gift-giving. Saturnalia was to honor Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture.
  • Zuni and Hopi peoples still practice ancient, sacred rituals on the Winter Solstice. For Zunis, the Sha’lak’o ceremonial dance bids farewell to the old and asks for blessings in the new year. For Hopi peoples, the Soyal Ceremony lasts 16 days beginning on the Solstice, with prayers and rituals to implement a plan for the coming year. Much of the ceremony involves dancing and singing; kachinas, or spirit beings, may even bring gifts to children.
Hopi Kachina Dolls. From the twelfth volume of The North American Indian series
by Edward S. Curtis. St. Louis Mercantile Library Special Collections
Many Northern and Western European traditions we associate with Christmas today come from ancient Solstice rituals performed by Druids and Romans. They displayed and decorated evergreen trees, which survived amid the withering and dying of most other plants at wintertime. They were symbols of hope during bleak midwinter months, signs that life carries on. Mistletoe was gathered in sacred ceremonies on the sixth day of the lunar phase, as it was believed to be all-healing, medicinal, and magical.
From Christmas in the Olden Time by Sir Walter Scott in The Jock Elliott Collection
of Christmas Literature & Art. St. Louis Mercantile Library Special Collections
The Winter Solstice has always been regarded as a mysterious and uncertain time. This might explain why so many people would associate the Solstice with the coming and going of otherworldly beings and communications between the living and the dead. If you think about it, winter is really the ideal time to tell scary tales- there is so much darkness. That darkness combined with the abundant mixture of pagan and religious rituals of midwinter seems like the perfect recipe for hauntings. Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is certainly the most famous example, but it is just one of many in the tradition of Christmas ghost stories.
From Christmas Shadows: A Tale of the Times by W.H. Swepstone in The Jock Elliott Collection
of Christmas Literature & Art. St. Louis Mercantile Library Special Collections
From The Faces in the Fire: A Story for the Season by Redgap in The Jock Elliot Collection of Christmas Literature & Art. St. Louis Mercantile Library Special Collections
Left: Christmas Books by W.M. Thackeray; Right: The Chimes: A Goblin Story by Charles Dickens (believe it or not, a Christmas story about goblins). Thackeray, who was inspired by Dickens’ Christmas stories, once spoke at the Mercantile Library. Both books are in The Jock Elliot Collection of Christmas Literature & Art. St. Louis Mercantile Library Special Collections
Humans need connection- perhaps more in the dark, cold, winter months than at any other time. While we may associate words like merry, joyful, and bright with the holiday season today, this time of year has historically been one of great contrasts. It was often a fearful, desperate time, as people hurried to prepare for the long winter ahead. For Celtic people, this time was known as an dudlach, which literally means “the gloom.” Even now, dwindling daylight hours can have negative impacts on people’s mental and physical health. And yet, despite the hardship life brings, people try to make the best of it. There might be no better example of this than our shared merry, joyful, and bright winter festivities. Candle lighting is central to the celebration of Hanukkah with the Menorah; Kwanzaa, with the Kinara; and Christmas, with the Advent wreath. It seems we have always had a penchant for turning darkness into light. Happy Winter Solstice, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Kwanzaa, and Happy Christmas to you all. - Alyssa Persson, Aubash Collections Access Librarian
The Bettis Family celebrates Kwanzaa in St. Louis. St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 1992.
St. Louis Mercantile Library Special Collections
“Lisa Fixman, Marc Burstein and Erika Fishman light candles on menorah at the
B’nai Amoona preschool center, 14298 Olive Street Road,” St. Louis Globe-Democrat,
December 1974. St. Louis Mercantile Library Special Collections
A one-horse open sleigh ride in Forest Park. St. Louis Globe-Democrat, January 1947.
St. Louis Mercantile Library Special Collections
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