From Jared Sandberg's article "Dark Days of December Leave Many Workers Yearning to See Light," in yesterday's Wall Street Journal:
There's every reason to suspect that our ancestors were as bummed about the disappearance of the sun as we are. Countless sacred sights were designed to align with the solstices--think Stonehenge--and as many cultures performed solstice ceremonies. The driving anxiety behind them? Fear that the sun would never return, says Teresa Ruano, a Web consultant whose research led to a Web site on the solstice.
"Celebration, ritual, bright lights, big feasts--all of those things that have become part of our celebrations at this time of year were considered activities that were important to encourage the sun to come back," she says.
It's thus no surprise that Christmas is so twinkly and candle-lit. Yuletide, a Scandinavian holiday that predates Christmas as we know it, involved giving gifts to the sun god, Balder, who had fallen into darkness. Iranians observe Yalda, a holiday in which fires are burned to help the sun defeat darkness. Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights, may have its roots in history, but it's awfully similar to India's Diwali, another festival of lights. Though it means a variety of things in different corners of India, one thing is common: The festival celebrates the renewal of life, which is certainly worth remembering at the time of year when everything is stone dead.