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Winter Soulstice Matariki

Winter (Summer) Solstice this year is June 22. The Northern Hemisphere Winter Solstice is linked to Christmas and winter has a number of liturgical and folk celebrations. If we want to embody liturgy better into the Southern Hemisphere – how might we celebrate it? Would we link it to the birth of John the Baptist (June 24)? [I’m not sure how we in the Southern Hemisphere can make anything special of a John the Baptist focus] Matariki, the Maori term for the Pleiades, is growing as a celebration of a new year at this time. There is a variety of traditions (length of celebration, association with the lunar cycle,…). Matariki is just appearing in the dawn twilight with Mars to its right.

Do you have any suggestions how we can celebrate the Southern Hemisphere Winter Solstice? How can we make the liturgical year more appropriate to the Southern Hemisphere?

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34 thoughts on “Winter Soulstice Matariki”

  1. Hugh McCafferty

    I have long thought that the church should boldly shift its calendar round by six months. This would also make the spring symbolism of Easter more sensible and would make the distinction between St Nicholas and Father Christmas clearer.

    1. Hi Hugh – not sure WHY you would want to make a distinction between st Nicholas and Father Christmas/ santa Claus, since they are the same person!

      1. Hugh McCafferty

        Hi Joanna – of that I am aware. It was a shorthand way of saying to free the celebration of Christ’s birth from the commercial monster it has become.

  2. Philippa Chapman

    Solstices are festivals of light. Your Winter one is the time of greatest darkness, just like in the UK. So I suggest something you might wish to call ‘Light in Darkness’.

    Candles/incense/a darkened church, after dusk. A fire ceremony? A hangi. The God who walks beside in the darkness. Poetry, music, silence, reflection. Dance. Bring in seasonal scents, flowers, leaves from trees. Celebrate all that is nocturnal and Kiwi.

  3. It’s not liturgical, but I try to find a way to celebrate the winter solstice at home with the children. Usually involves spending time camping in front of the log burner with candlelight (carefully supervised), some treat food and sleeping in the lounge. Will have to adapt this year due to the lack of a chimney putting the log burner out of action.

    I like all of Philippa’s ideas, especially the idea of using poetry and music.

  4. Apparently the solstice is at 17:16 on June 21 GMT (Warning: this info is from Wikipedia). Therefore it is June 22 for all those West of (roughly) 100E and June 21 for the rest of the world. Obviously New Zealand is in the June 22 zone.

    So when do we celebrate this feast?

    1. Thanks, Dave. I don’t know that it even needs to be a feast day – down to the hour. Look at how the Northern Hemisphere celebrates winter solstice. They anticipate it for weeks. Traditionally it was celebrated for 12 days. RCs have extended that to the Sunday after that & now the CofE has extended it even further for a total of 40 days to Feb 2 or even the Sunday following. Matariki can be celebrated for a month.

  5. One of the things I think is good about the southern hemisphere calendar is that poinsettias “bloom” around Pentecost, and their resemblance to tongues of fire makes this appropriate.

    And, for the Orthodox at least, the church New Year falls, appropriately, on the first day of sSpring. See Happy new year! | Khanya

  6. Here in the States, of course, it’s summer, but all of these ideas are lovely for when our winter rolls around.

    1. Thanks, Mary. I think nearly everyone in the Southern Hemisphere is conscious of the Northern Hemisphere seasons (In the bleak midwinter sung in swimwear on the beach), but many in the Northern Hemisphere never think of ours being different, our constellations are different, we view the moon differently, it waxes and wanes in the opposite direction, etc. Blessings.

  7. Hi, Bosco. Before offering some specific suggestions for the antipodean winter solstice, I thought it might be of some use to think in a more general way about the problem of how an Incarnational religion relates to differing geographical settings. The following passage is from (the then-) Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger’s book The Spirit of the Liturgy, trans. John Saward (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000), pp. 103-4:

    The cosmic symbolism that I have been describing has its precise setting in the area of the Mediterranean and the Near East in which the Jewish and Christian religions came into being. By and large it applies to the Northern Hemisphere of the globe. Now in the Southern Hemisphere everything is reversed. The Christian Easter falls, not in the spring, but in autumn. Christmas coincides, not with the winter solstice, but with high summer. This raises the question of “inculturation” with great urgency. If the cosmic symbolism is so important, ought we not to adjust the liturgical calendar for the Southern Hemisphere? G. Voss* has rightly responded by pointing out that, if we did this, we would reduce the mystery of Christ to the level of a merely cosmic religion; we would be subordinating history to the cosmos. But the historical does not serve the cosmic; no, the cosmic serves the historical. Only in history is the cosmos given its center and goal. To believe in the Incarnation means to be bound to Christianity’s origins, their particularity, and, in human terms, their contingency. Here is the guarantee that we are not chasing myths; that God really has acted in our history and taken our time into his hands. Only over the bridge of this “once for all” can we come into the “forever” of God’s mercy. At the same time, we must take account of the full breadth of the symbol and of God’s action in history. Voss has very beautifully pointed to the “autumnal” aspects of the Easter mystery, which deepen and broaden our understanding of the feast and give it a special profile appropriate to the Southern Hemisphere. Incidentally, the Scriptures and the liturgy offer their own suggestions for a transferral of the symbols. I have already pointed out that, in interpreting the Passion of Jesus, St. John’s Gospel and the epistle to the Hebrews do not just refer to the feast of Passover, which is the Lord’s “hour”, in terms of date. No, they also interpret it in light of the ritual of the Day of Atonement celebrated on the tenth day of the seventh month (September-October). In the Passover of Jesus there is, so to speak, a coincidence of Easter (spring) and the Day of Atonement (autumn). Christ connects the world’s spring and autumn. The autumn of declining time becomes a new beginning, while the spring, as the time of the Lord’s death, now points to the end of time, to the autumn of the world, in which, according to the Fathers, Christ came among us.

    [*G. Voss, “Christen auf der Suche nach einem gemeinsamen Osterdatum”, parts 1 and 2, in Ökumenische Information 24 (1998), 5-10.]

  8. In my youth I sometimes used to get a bit annoyed at the treatment of feasts like Christmas and Easter as northern hemisphere fertility feasts. There was one Anglican hymn that I quite liked, except for the northern hemisphere imagery. It was 131 in the English Hymnal (do Anglicans still use that?). It claims to be a translation of a hymn by St John of Damascus but I’ve never found the original to see if the northern hemisphere imagery is his, or is the result of J.M. Neale’s translation/paraphrase. The second verse reads:

    ‘Tis the Spring of souls today
    Christ has burst his prison
    and from three days’ sleep in death
    as a sun has risen
    all the winter of our sins
    long and dark is flying
    from his light to whom we give
    laud and praise undying.

    I removed the northern hemisphere cultural imperialism thus:

    ‘Tis the dawn of joy today
    Christ has burst his prison
    and from three days’sleep in death
    as a sun has risen
    all the night of death and sin
    long and dark, if flying
    from his light, to whomwe give
    laud and praise undying.

    I don’t think we need to change things like Christmas and Easter because norther hemisphere people think the seasonal associations are so important. As I noted in an earlier comment, we can associate diffferent seasonal things with the feasts, which can also bring out their meaning.

    The Serbs have a custom of blessing and distributing “Christmas trees” after Vespers on Christmas eve. The Christmas trees are oak branches, with acorns attached. It occcured to me that they must look pretty miserable in Serbia, with the leaves all brown and shrivelled, instead of fresh and green, as they are here.

  9. Brother David

    But there is also a reading of your quote that might give the impression that the Northern Hemisphere has some sort of precedence.

    I am not sure that J. Ratzinger was saying that the N. Hemisphere took precedent. I think that he was saying that on some of the events celebrated during the church year we know the historic date of its occurrence. He was pointing out that at least for the Passion, it is tied to the celebration of the Passover, so then Pentecost is also known because it is 50 days later.

    The rest of the year, not so much! As I understand the development of the Church calendar, the church first marked and celebrated Mary’s conception on 25 MAR. It was awhile later that some genius counted 9 months and set the date to celebrate the Incarnation as 25 DEC. Is there anyone who is really naive enough to believe that those are the actual historic dates of the events celebrated?

    But I think Ratzinger’s point was that Christmas was not a winter festival per say, even though the traditions and such that developed around it mainly reflect the fact that its celebration developed in the North, where most Christians in the world at that time in history lived and it actually was winter. So I hear him saying that it is not a winter festival and there is no need to flip the church year in the Southern Hemisphere to make Christmas coincide with winter in the South.

    I read that back and I know what I am trying to say, but I am not so sure that it is coming across all too well in English.

    1. Makes perfectly good English sense to me, David. I am aware & like the theory of the origin of Christmas that you give here – it might even be written about somewhere on this site (it’s too big for me to keep track of what’s here & what’s not 🙂 ) I’ve been more interested in making connections to the celebration within a particular context than supporting moving feasts etc. around to fit with the context – if that makes sense. Blessings.

  10. I think I understand the point you’re trying to make David. I’ve grown up in the Southern Hemisphere, and for me it wouldn’t be Christmas without barbecues and picnics at the beach, taking 2 or 3 weeks holiday to spend Christmas with extended family in other parts of the country. What seems out of place to me is the Christmas cards and decorations that insist on Winter scenery.

  11. Hugh McCafferty

    I have worked with farming people where Christmas dinner is gobbled down on the way back to the harvest. Our “green season” where not much happens liturgically corresponds to a time of great business in the northern hemisphere but a time of “nothing much in the southern”. Similarly our busy Christmas Easter cycle corresponds to a time of “nothing much on the land in the northern hemisphere but of great business in the southern. It is out of joint or needs to be dealt with very differently

  12. I got side-tracked last night before I could get on with my main suggestion! Brother David has already picked up on the issue of the rationale for the dating of Christmas, which also gets a fascinating discussion in Ratzinger’s Spirit of the Liturgy (pp. 105-110). I would want to pick up on your suggestion, Bosco, of the Nativity of John the Baptist (June 24) as a focus for an “inculturated” recognition of the southern winter solstice. The point of the earlier passage in Ratzinger, as I would understand it, is not that the “north” has “precedence”, but that we should seek to root “cosmic” realities in “historical” (incarnational) realities. We don’t want just a “Christian southern winter solstice” — indeed, in the north we have to work very hard to keep Christmas from being anything but a pagan solar festival! And the tradition has excellent resources to play with here.

    As we’ve already seen, the crucial date for Christmas is actually March 25. According to a very early tradition (already attested in Tertullian) this was the date of the Crucifixion. But the Annunciation also gets attached to it, and John the Baptist has a place here. An early interpretation of Luke 1 held that Zechariah was not merely offering the daily incense of the morning and evening sacrifice, but was entering the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement (this is the weakest link in the chain, and Ratzinger doesn’t mention it), which would put John’s conception in the autumn. At the Annunciation, Mary is told by Gabriel that Elizabeth is already six months’ pregnant, which would put the Annunciation in March (already gravitating towards the traditional Crucifixion date of the 25th). And voila, John’s birth is indeed celebrated in late June.

    As soon as these dates were established, however, the “cosmic symbolism” (obviously with northern referents) was increasingly recognized. Christ’s birth coincided with the northern winter solstice, so that even the cosmos itself was seen to prophesy the birth of Malachi’s “Sun of righteousness” (4:2). And John the Baptist’s birth at the (northern) summer solstice, with the onset of shorter days, was connected with his saying, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (Jn 3:30; see Spirit, p. 109).

    What to make of this in the south? The tradition gives us an open invitation to explore the Nativity of John the Baptist as the “cosmic counterpart” to Christmas. My suggested starting point would be John 5:33-35: “You sent messengers to John, and testified to the truth. … He was a burning and shining lamp, and you were willing to rejoice for a while in his light.” This passage has an obvious link with John 1:6-9: “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” Here we have some nice imagery about John the “lamp” testifying to Christ the “light”. And in the southern hemisphere it’s dark in June, so…

    At the southern winter solstice, therefore, it might be very appropriate to observe the Nativity of John the Baptist with lamp-lighting, perhaps in conjunction with an especially solemn vesper lucernarium, stressing that John the lamp is entirely dependent on Christ the Light. A “Baptist lamp” could burn in the church, perhaps in proximity to the baptismal font, until the feast of the Beheading of John the Baptist on August 29, when of course it would be dramatically snuffed out. Every Eucharist and Office throughout this period could include a memorial of John’s nativity, perhaps with the singing of Bede’s hymn Praecursor altus luminis (“Hail, harbinger of morn”). There is also an apt responsory chant from Nocturns of the Nativity: Hic Praecursor dilectus, et lucerna lucens ante Dominum: * Ipse est enim Joannes, qui viam Domino praeparavit in eremo; sed et Agnum Dei demonstrabat et illuminabat mentes hominum. V. Ipse praeibit ante illum in spiritu et virtute Eliae. * Ipse est enim… (Trans. in Monastic Breviary Matins: “This is the beloved Forerunner, a burning and shining light before the Lord: * For verily this is John who made straight in the desert a highway for our God, and, moreover, bore witness unto the Lamb of God, and enlightened the minds of men. V. He shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elias. * For verily…).

    And of course we’d find a way to work in other scriptural references to lamps under bushels, cities on hills, people that walked in darkness, etc. All this would have the benefit of restoring the Nativity of the Baptist to its proper dignity (greatest born of woman, and all that). We forget that only three people get “nativities” in the calendar: Christ, Mary, and John — a hierarchy reflected in the old invocations of saints (e.g. the Confiteor).

    1. Thanks so much, Jesse, for your wonderful ideas. Sometimes, as the webmaster here, I am disappointed when I put up a post that I hope can enrich our lives individually and corporately, that no one adds any reflection to mine. It sometimes seems that controversial issues draw interest. But this thread is proving a wonderful exception – here we are together trying to see how we might enrich our celebrating. Thanks & blessings.

      1. Happy to contribute, Bosco! And to follow up (1) there are some lovely light/fire/star references in John Keble’s poem on John’s nativity in The Christian Year (drawing parallels with Elijah); and (2) I discover that there is in fact an old tradition of lighting a bonfire on the vigil of John’s nativity. Here’s the blessing from the 1962 Rituale Romanum, as translated over at http://www.sanctamissa.org:

        on the Vigil of the Birthday of St. John the Baptist
        conferred by the clergy outside of church

        In the Church’s veneration of her saints the cult of John the Baptist had from earliest times and continues to have a most prominent and honored place. John gave testimony of the true light that shines in the darkness, although he proclaimed in utter humility: “He must increase, but I must decrease.” And the Master also spoke in highest praise of His precursor: “I say to you, among those born of women there is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist.” Attuned to the words of the Gospel the Christians of former times were filled with love and enthusiasm for this saint, and expressed a justifiable conviviality at the approach of his feastday by lighting a bonfire the night before in front of their churches, in the market-place, on the hilltops, and in the valleys. The custom of St. John bonfires, indicative of a people with unabashed and childlike faith, continues in some places to this day.

        P: Our help is in the name of the Lord.
        All: Who made heaven and earth.

        P: The Lord be with you.
        All: May He also be with you.

        Let us pray.
        Lord God, almighty Father, the light that never fails and the source of all light, sanctify this new fire, and grant that after the darkness of this life we may come unsullied to you who are light eternal; through Christ our Lord.
        All: Amen.

        The fire is sprinkled with holy water; after which the clergy and the people sing the following hymn (for the music see the music supplement):

        Hymn: Ut queant laxis

        O for your spirit, holy John, to chasten
        Lips sin-polluted, fettered tongues to loosen;
        So by your children might your deeds of wonder
        Meetly be chanted.

        Lo! a swift herald, from the skies descending,
        Bears to your father promise of your greatness;
        How he shall name you, what your future story,
        Duly revealing.

        Scarcely believing message so transcendent,
        Him for a season power of speech forsaketh,
        Till, at your wondrous birth, again returneth,
        Voice to the voiceless.

        You, in your mother’s womb all darkly cradled,
        Knew your great Monarch, biding in His chamber,
        Whence the two parents, through their offspring’s merits,
        Mysteries uttered.

        Praise to the Father, to the Son begotten,
        And to the Spirit, equal power possessing,
        One God whose glory, through the lapse of ages,
        Ever resounding.

        P: There was a man sent from God.
        All Whose name was John.

        Let us pray.
        God, who by reason of the birth of blessed John have made this day praiseworthy, give your people the grace of spiritual joy, and keep the hearts of your faithful fixed on the way that leads to everlasting salvation; through Christ our Lord.
        All: Amen.

  13. Brother David

    I should also point out that for millions of us who do live in the Northern Hemisphere, the wintery scenes of Christmas seem a rare treat for our much more northern neighbors because we do not celebrate a very wintery Christmas. We barely need jackets some days and we have never seen a snowflake. We have to import Christmas trees because the pretty, perfectly pyramid-shaped evergreens do not grow here naturally.

    I do remember 6 years ago that we did have a cold snap on la Noche Buena (Christmas Eve). About 4:30 pm it was almost dark and a light, feathery snow began to fall. The ground was too warm and it immediately melted. But the cars parked on the streets all day were plenty cold. Within the hour the trunk of every car had a snowman, a Christmas tree or an angel! And we all went to bed that night having a White Christmas and knowing that at least tonight Santa’s sleigh had snow to grease the landing of it runners.

  14. I agree wholeheartedly with Jesse’s point. I once had to mark a university assignment, set by someone else, on the origins of the celebration of Chrit’s nativity. So I read all the literature that had been recommended to the students, and tried to follow it up. All I found was speculations and urban legends (which the students swollowed, hook line and sinker).

    So I devised my own scenario, which is similar, though not identical to Jesse’s.

    Bishop: These Arians denying the incarnation of Christ are becoming tiresome. The Council of Nicaea didn’t shut them up, and now they’re propagaiting their nonsense with advertising jingles. Even the emperoro, who subsidised the council, is beginning to waver.

    Priest: What say we have a special day to commemorate the Incarnation? I know we do it on 6 January, but the adoptionists have been misinterpreting that. Let’s have one on a different day.

    Bishop: Good idea. How about the day that Jesus was born.

    All priests: Amen to that.

    Bishop: Um, which day WAS Jesus born on?


    Bishop: Deacon Dionysius, go and research it, and report back at the next clergy meeting.


    Bishop: Well, Deacon, did you find out when Jesus was born?

    Deacon: Not exactly, but I did search the scriptures and St Luke say’s he was conceived in the sixth month, six months after his cousin John the Baptist, and it does imply that it could have been the sixth month of the year.

    Bishop: Well, that settles it. The first of April, then. Six months from New Year takes us to 1 July, and nine months after that takes us to the first of April.

    Priest: Um, Your Eminence, that’s April Fool’s Day.

    Another priest: It’s also the middle of Lent.

    Deacon: But it was probably the Jewish New Year, not the imperial one.

    Bishop: Right let’s hear it then. Which is the Jewish New Year?

    Deacon: Well, that’s the problem. It’s usually sometime in September but it changes from year to year.

    Bishop: When was it last year?

    Deacon: On 25 September.

    Bishop: Right, that settles it. Six months from then is 25th March, where we can have the Annunciation. Yes, I know it’s Lent, but let people eat fish for a break. Add nine months to that and we’ll have a bash for our Lord’s birthday on 25 December. Oh, and to balance things up we’ll commemorate St John the Baptist’s birthday on 25 July. No, make that 24th, or people will start thinking 25 is a lucky number or something. Any other business? I declare this meeting cl… Oh, by the way: Deacon Dionysius, go and do some proper research and draw up a decent calendar showing when Jesus was born. No hurry, take your time over it and do a good job. We’ve got the thing we need to counter the Arians’ nonsense.

    Roses are reddish
    Violets are blueish
    If it weren’t for Christmas
    We’d all be Jewish.

    Ungrounded speculation?

    Of course.

    But so is all the other stuff I’ve read about the origins of Christmas.

  15. Perhaps a celebration of the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry, as depicted in Matthew 4:16-25. The imagery of people who sat in darkness seeing a great light would have special significance for people in the Southern Hemisphere that time of year.

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