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Merry Solstice

Looking back, I never really had a shot at being pious. With a lapsed Catholic for a mother and a secular Jew for a step-father, I was a spiritual orphan, destined to stumble through the year-end holidays with no real sense of history.

Oh, sure, we decorated a Christmas tree and lit a menorah. I could play “Silent Night” on the piano and recite the Hanukkah prayer in Hebrew — feats that made grandparents on both sides beam.

But the geneses of these religious holidays were unclear to me, and their stories a holly jolly jumble. I was convinced, for instance, that a drummer boy chased the Syrians out of Israel and holed up in a temple, where he had the chutzpah to keep Rudolph’s nose aglow for all 12 days of Christmas — a miracle if I ever heard one!

Mangers and Maccabees, virgins and latkes. These symbols were as irrelevant to me as snowmen and sleigh rides in our sunny Southern California suburb. They were just myths to give colorful backstory to the indulgent rituals we couldn’t otherwise justify: overeating, overspending, and running up the electric bill to make our home sparkle like the Gates of Heaven — whatever those were.

But when I grew up and began guiding my own children through the holidays, I felt a bit… I don’t know… untethered. My household possesses the requisite love of nog, twinkle lights, and Douglas fir. But our family’s beliefs just aren’t reflected in the lyrics to “O Come All Ye Faithful” or the teachings of the Talmud.

And it occurred to me recently, that’s a total rip-off. So I began poking around for something my brood could really rejoice over, something monumental and magical that would make us feel connected, inspired — even reverent.

Kwanzaa’s cool, but its 1966 origin makes the African-American holiday too modern for my taste. I wanted a ritual that had been around — humming happily just under the organized-religion radar — for centuries. I found it in winter solstice.

Occurring every December 21 or 22, the solstice is the shortest day and longest night of the year. Technically the first day of winter, it’s also the gateway to spring, the moment after which days begin to grow longer again. For thousands of years, pagans (non-Christians) celebrated the solstice as an annual rebirth of the sun; a promise that spring and summer were on their way; a reminder that even when life is darkest and coldest, there is light and warmth around the bend. Now there’s something I can say “amen” to.

Ancient folk believed the only way to coax the sun back into the sky was to throw it a wild, wintery party with much feasting and wine. (Are you with me here?) Turns out lots of the symbols we associate with Christmas — wreaths, holly, evergreen boughs, mistletoe, yule logs — were actually, er, borrowed from pagan solstice celebrations.

So my family borrowed ’em right back. Now every year, we light a yule log and toss leaves into the fire to cast away memories we’d like to leave behind. We sing the yuletide carol “Deck the Halls” and make silent wishes for the coming year. We light four candles representing the seasons and talk about the joys of each. Together, we chant a short poem about sunlight and then hug and open presents.

Some might think it’s weird, but we don’t sacrifice a goat or anything. And we haven’t even given up Christmas or Hanukkah; I still love the feel of Hebrew prayers on my tongue and the warble of a heartfelt “O Holy Night.” We’ve just added more colorful lore to the seasonal mix so that my children will have a stronger grasp of holiday history than I ever did.

Like the “fact,” ahem, that Santa hails from Stonehenge.

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