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History of Ibiza
by Emily Kaufman

Reflections on Light


Historical Information

Hello and welcome. This week we are going to deviate from our usual historical vein to consider the underlying symbolism of Christmas in a philosophical context. We will refer back, rather generally, to the pre-Christian concepts that were observed by almost all-ancient societies at this time of the year as well as to the application of these concepts in the birth of Christianity.

Unending Renewal

Throughout the course of history, as one leading religion gave way to another, elements of the old orthodoxy were invariably incorporated into the new belief system. Sometimes the transference was quite direct and the correlations were obvious. Such is the case in the shift from Greek to Roman mythology. Often, however, these carry-over elements were adopted under a wholly different guise so that one has to look below the surface in order to discern the similarities.

Scrutiny reveals that the most important dates in the Christian calendar are, in fact, homologues to pre-Christian observances. Christmas is no exception. It is an observable fact that the Yuletide coincides with an ancient pagan rite: the celebration of the winter solstice.

The Ebb and Flow of Solar Force

In the celestial cycle, the solstices mark the two points of reversal in the relationship between day and night. If the days have been waxing, they shall henceforth wane; if they have been waning, they will begin to wax.

At the winter solstice, the shortest day meets the longest night. Here, the growth of night, much feared by ancient man, is checked by the day-force, which quietly begins to increase in strength. (Ultimately it reaches its zenith at the summer solstice and the corresponding fiesta of Sant Joan, also an ancient pagan rite.) The force of light however is still but a flicker of hope in the vast, dark silence of the winter night. In Christian philosophy, this small flame represents the spark of celestial fire that burns in the heart of every true believer. It is the birth of the Christ-child, still an infant, but destined to become a man - the herald of a new age.

Island priest, Joan Marí Cardona, affirms that the fluctuating relationship between light and darkness has always been of paramount importance in Christian liturgy. He traces its symbolism with biblical references starting in the Book of Genesis.

Let There Be Light

Of all God's works, the foremost was the creation of the world. The first step in this great act was the separation of light from darkness. To the night belonged nothingness and oblivion, while day became the realm of all life, growth and abundance.

Further on in the Old Testament, the Prophets of Israel foretell the coming the Christ. They prophesied the imminent arrival of a man who would bring light to the world and illuminate its entire people.

True to the symbolism of the winter solstice, Jesus was born at midnight, a ray of light emanating from the deepest dark. The fabled shepherds in their field witnessed this splendour radiance and hastened to the crude manger in Bethlehem where the Baby Jesus lay sleeping in this crib.

Meanwhile, the Three Magi were being guided by celestial navigation. The well-known carol reminds us of their quest: "We three kings of orient are / Bearing gifts we traverse afar / Field and fountain, moor and mountain / Following yonder star."

When the wise men stopped in the city of Jerusalem (evil Herod's domain) to ask for the newborn king, the star disappeared. Only when the Magi again set forth on their proper course to Bethlehem did the star reappear to guide them faithfully to the object of their adoration.

The biblical 'light motif' (if I am allowed the pun) continues during Christ's adult life when the evangelist St. John extolled this message: "Jesus is the light come to illuminate the world." In his own teachings, Jesus affirmed: "I am the light of the world. I have come that men may have abundant life." But, in reference to the men of bad will, He says: "They prefer the darkness of the shadows to the light of day, that their deeds may be concealed."

Finally, with the death of Jesus, came the withdrawal of light: "A thunderous noise was heard and darkness descended over Mount Calvary." Not until His resurrection three days later and His ascent to heaven was light restored.

Deeper Meanings

Marí Cardona concedes that scholars have never been able to establish with any true accuracy the exact birth date of the historical Jesus. In his opinion, it was the significant symbolic proximity of the Christ story to the pagan concept of the winter solstice, which also determined the chronological proximity of the two dates. He observes that, "the fight between light and dark, good and evil, is a millenarian idea of many peoples. Especially in the Mediterranean, it has always been a recurring theme."

With these thoughts in mind, it is interesting to note the typical Christmas custom of lighting candles - the lone flame in the night - while at the opposite fiesta of Sant Joan and the summer solstice, huge bonfires are set ablaze to signify the ephemeral triumph of day over night.

In his treatise, The Pulse of Life, philosopher Dane Rudhyar describes the Christmas event thus: "The time of the winter solstice has now come . . . The days have decreased in length as much as they ever will. Long, wintry nights absorb nature in their repose . . . Death seems to rule supreme over the visible universe. And yet, somewhere and forever, a new Christ is born. Life surges once more with the sun from its southern decline. The sun moves northward, its daily arc of light becomes slowly tauter and more radiant. The promise of spring spreads life a mystic fire over the earth to tell 'men of good will' that the New Life has begun to win over arrested death."

Rudhyar then challenges us with this query: "What is this new life that men have symbolized in the beautiful Christ-story, whose roots go deeply into the soil of older mythologies? Who is the eternal 'Christos', whose significance remains everlastingly true and vital, whether or not men believe in the historical or religious Christ?"


Surely there are as many answers as there are readers. If anything, Christmas is a time for reflecting on the values we chose to live by. For many it is a time for reaffirming long-held beliefs, while for others it is a time to resume the quest into the Great Beyond. But, whatever it is you are celebrating this season (e.g. Christmas, Hanukkah, Ramadan, or none of the above), I wish you a happy one! Next week we will take a closer look at Ibiza's Christmas tradition. Please join us,

Emily Kaufman