The Winter Solstice has been a time both of trepidation and celebration for humanity for thousands of years
The power of the sun grows less and less, the world gets colder and colder. The leaves have fallen from the trees, all vegetation is dead or dying. The whole earth appears to be under a sentence of death.
Then just when all seems lost, the sun is reborn, the days begin to lengthen again, the sun is returning!
Surely that demands a celebration, and so it has done for as long as there have been people to observe this magical turn around which we call the Winter Solstice.
There are deities associated with the Solstice, personifications of the celestial drama:
There is the child born now, the reborn Sun
The Mother of the child
And there is the Gift Bringer
It is the Gift Bringer who alerts humanity to the imminent birth.
In the New Testament it is Wise Men from the East who travel through many lands asking where they can find the magical child. Their questions awaken hope and anticipation - and also fear in King Herod who sees the child as a threat to his earthly power and kingdom.
The gifts these Wise Men bring are symbols which represent the powers of the Sun God:
Gold, the shining metal of the Sun, symbol of wealth, power and kingship
Frankincense, the incense offering to the bright Sun God who lights the day
Myrrh, incense and perfume used in the preservation of the corpse, the perfume of the hidden god, the Sun at Midnight, the god in the Underworld.
The Sun God is born in a cave (in Japan the Sun Goddess Amaterasu also hides her beauty in a cave and has to be coaxed out to bring light to the world) and at his birth the cry rings out: 'Lo! The Bridegroom cometh!'. Not the sort of cry which greets a new born human baby, but the cry which tells his followers that the Sun God leaps from his mother's womb fully adult and ready for battle against the powers of darkness.
In Aztec myths this is depicted in extremely graphic terms as Huitzilopochtli leaps out fully armed and firing arrows (sunbeams) in all directions which kill his sister Coyolxauhqui, the Moon Goddess.
The gift bringers sometimes foreshadow the birth, searching the land and preparing the people for the great event. Sometimes they appear on the day of the birth, or they may even be chasing along behind, late for the birth and giving gifts to all as they do not know which child is the potential Sun God.
In Britain we have Father Christmas, a vigorous elder dressed in a long green robe trimmed with fur, who leaves gifts to be found on Christmas morning.
The red coat our modern Santa Claus wears was put on him by the Coca-Cola company in the 19th century as an advertising gimmick.
In Belgium and the Netherlands Sinter Klaas, Saint Nicholas, leaves gifts in shoes and stockings on his saint's day, the 6th of December - he has translated into the American Santa Claus.
In Italy Befana, who looks for all the work like the classic image of a Witch, hurries along in January, dropping gifts as she tries eternally to catch up with the holy babe.
Although all of these gift bringers have been adopted as part of the christian festival of Christmas, their roots and origins are far, far older.
To be continued .....