The solstice: it is a shared human experience. We celebrate, and reflect, as we move together between darkness and light. Today, we celebrate the solstice.
Today, in the Northern hemisphere, is the winter solstice: the north pole is at its point furthest away from the sun. It is the longest night, and shortest day of the year. The south pole is at its closest point to the sun: in the southern hemisphere, it is the longest day and shortest night of the year.
The winter solstice in the Northern hemisphere is the summer solstice in the southern hemisphere: we move between darkness and light. It has seasons. It has rhythms. These rhythms are felt in the inside world just as they are felt in the outside. We are part of the whole: we feel more whole when we tune into the cycles and flow of that whole of which we are a part.
Can we feel our place in the cycle? Can we flow with that cycle: sometimes more deeply inward; sometimes more deeply outward.
Regardless of where you live, the solstice happens at the same moment for everyone on the planet. It is among the most basic experiences of our shared humanity, an experience we share with all of life.
We move between darkness and light. The pattern is cyclic and precise. There is a moment which – in the north, today – is the moment of deepest darkness. Where I live, that moment is 10:23pm this evening, Friday, December 21, 2018. After that moment, the sun is reborn – the year is re-born: the light returns in a gradual and gentle – yet undeniably decisive way.
There is a wreath on my door today. It is an evergreen wreath. It is evergreen – always green: the light does return even after our times of deepest darkness. It is a circle: it celebrates the continuity of life, even as we celebrate the death and rebirth of the solar year.
The wreath is an ancient symbol, and its circle of evergreens affirms this cycle of life with a spirit of protection, prosperity and hope: light will come after darkness. In some old cultures, the front door of the home is opened at midnight to let in the new year. Endings are what creates the space that makes new beginnings possible.
It is, around the world and since ancient times, a time of reflection, of celebration and of feasting: the return of the light…the rebirth of the sun….
The solstice is celebrated all over the world, and this from deeply ancient times. Ancient stone monuments – such as the late Neolithic structure known as Stonehenge, in England, built some 5000 years ago – honour the solstice, the re-birth of the solar year.
In temperate European climates, the midwinter festival was the last feast celebration, before deep winter began. Most cattle were slaughtered so they would not have to be fed during the winter, so a plentiful supply of fresh meat was available. Wine and beer made during the year was finally fermented and ready for drinking at this time.
They celebrated the return of the sun. The year was re-born, a new solar year begun. So, they celebrated the possibilities that come from new beginnings and affirmed – in the gap when the sun appears to stand still – that life continues.
Pre-Christian people in northern Europe celebrated a 12 day “mid-winter” festival called the Yule; it means “wheel”, the turning of the wheel of the year. Modern celebrations of the Christmas tree, the wreath and yule log descend from these old Yule celebrations; the English word Yule was first recorded in the year 900: the word came into English at the time of the Vikings.
The Roman winter solstice festival of “Saturnalia” was a time of family and friends feasting together and exchanging presents.
The “Unconquered Sun” - originally a Syrian god - was adopted as the official sun god of the Roman Empire under the Emperor Aurelian. Emperor Aurelian established December 25 as the birthday of the “Unconquered Sun” as part of the Roman Winter Solstice celebrations.
In the year 350, Pope Julius I selected this day to represent the birthday of Jesus, and this Roman solar feast day was Christianized. January 6, celebrated as Epiphany in Christian tradition and linked with the visit of the Magi, was originally an Egyptian date for the Winter Solstice.
Many “Christmas” celebrations are linked to winter solstice celebrations of ancient pre-Christian European cultures: holly, ivy, evergreen boughs, pine cones, and mistletoe celebrated re-birth and continuity at the re-birth of the solar year, as did the colours red, green and white.
Today's Santa has many European roots. He embodies characteristics of Saturn (Roman agricultural god), Cronos (a Greek god, known as Father Time), the Holly King (Celtic god of the dying year), Father Ice/Grandfather Frost a (Russian winter god), Thor (a Norse sky god who rides the sky in a chariot drawn by goats), Odin (a Scandinavian All-Father who rides the sky on an eight-legged horse), Frey (a Norse fertility god), and the Tomte (a Norse Land Spirit known for giving gifts to children at this time of year)...in addition to his Christian association with St. Nicholas.
In Iranian tradition, the winter solstice is known as “Yalda night”. Family members gather to celebrate by eating, drinking and reading poems. Nuts and pomegranates – seeds of new life – are especially served at this time.
In Japan, it is custom to soak in a hot bath at the time of the solstice in order to not catch cold in the winter.
We move from the cold into warmth, from darkness into light. It is a time of celebration, of reflection, of re-birth and renewal, of gratitude and of hope.
The festival of lights in Hindu tradition – Diwali – is celebrated in October or November, according to the position of the moon. Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights, is celebrated a bit earlier in December: the Jewish calendar is also a lunar calendar.
Yet, around the world at this time of year, we celebrate with light that shines through; we light the candles that we enjoy all the more because of the long winter’s night.
It is a time for celebration – for connection with each other within that wholeness the worlds of which we are a part. It is a time to enjoy the festivity of the season.
Yet, in the midst of all things, it can be good to remember that throughout the ages – the ancient Egyptians, the Celts, the Hopi – we have celebrated mid-winter in a way ….well….that remembers it is mid-winter.
At its heart, winter is a season for quiet stillness and rest. Plants and animals slow down to conserve energy. The sap has drawn into the trees. It is nourishing for us to also make time to draw a bit into ourselves and take note of what we find there.
Creating a celebration of the winter solstice – in addition to or in place of other holiday activities – can give us space to connect to the flow of this change in our cosmic rhythms and our internal world.
At its heart, it is a time to feed the soul, a time for quiet reflection, to enjoy the warmth of home in the deep mid-winter as darkness turns towards the light. We draw inward, acknowledge our successes, articulate our learnings, name our dreams and give birth to new visions.
If you would like to create your own winter solstice celebration this year, here are some suggestions of how you might do that.
Do a solstice eve ritual in which you meditate – or take quiet, reflective time - in darkness – alone or with loved ones - and then welcome the birth of the sun by lighting candles, perhaps placed in a spiral or a circle. Taste the potential of light that comes out of darkness. Enjoy the potential of being re-born anew.
If you have an indoor fireplace or an outdoor fire circle, burn a log – a really big log - as a Yule log and save a bit to start next year's fire.
Watch the sun rise or set.
Go for a walk in nature, and visit a place in nature that is special for you: offer gratitude for the fruits of the year.
Put up a holiday tree.
Decorate the house with lights.
Enjoy some mulled wine.
Enjoy oranges: the orange is a symbol of the return of the sun.
Celebrate life by contributing to the wellbeing of life on the earth. Donate food or clothing. Volunteer time at a social service agency. Donate funds and make a pledge to do some form of good in the world in the new solar year.
Feed birds: this has been part of the celebration of the Yuletide holidays for hundreds of years in Europe. The seeds are symbols of life and are seen to send a spirit of good will to others who walk with us in the natural world.
Curl up – with some wine, or coffee, or eggnog, or tea – and reflect.
What have been our accomplishments in the year that has past? What have we learned? What are we grateful for? What do we regret?
What will we choose take with us into the next cycle? What will we choose to let go…as we say good-bye to the old and welcome the new….?
We release the old to make space to move forward in the direction of our dreams.
How will you be re-born, as the cycle of life celebrates the return of the sun, the time when our deepest darkness begins its journey, once again, into the light?
Copyright © 2018, Adela Sandness