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Traditions of the Winter Solstice

Traditions of the Winter Solstice Folks worldwide observe many seasonal days of celebration during the month of December. Most are religious or holy days, and are linked in some way to the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere. Five thousand years of human history--maybe more--have enfolded this season in rich garb--many layers of celebration, folklore and tradition. The Winter Solstice is unique among days of the year — the time of the longest night and the shortest day. The dark triumphs, but only briefly. For the Solstice is also a turning point. From now on (until the Summer Solstice, at any rate), the nights grow shorter and the days grow longer, the dark wanes and the Sun waxes in power. From the dark womb of the night, the light is born.

Many of the customs associated with the Winter Solstice (and therefore with other midwinter festivals such as St Lucy’s Day, Saturnalia, Hanukkah, New Years and Twelfth Night) derive from stories of a mighty battle between the dark and the light, which is won, naturally, by the light. Other traditions record this as the time a savior (the Sun-Child) is born to a virgin mother.

Solstice means ... standing-still-sun Winter solstice, December 21st, is when......because of the earth's tilt, our hemisphere is leaning farthest away from the sun, and therefore the daylight is the shortest and the sun has its lowest arc in the sky. No one's really sure how long ago humans recognized the winter solstice and began heralding it as a turning point -- the day that marks the return of the sun. One delightful little book written in 1948, “4,000 Years of Christmas”, puts its theory right up in the title. The Mesopotamians were first, it claims, with a 12-day festival of renewal, designed to help the god Marduk tame the monsters of chaos for one more year.

Many, many cultures the world over perform solstice ceremonies. At their root: an ancient fear that the failing light would never return unless humans intervened with anxious vigil or antic celebration. It's a charming theory. But who knows how accurate it is?

Cultural anthropology has advanced a lot in the last 50 years!

There's much new scholarship about Neolithic peoples and their amazing culture. For example, it now looks as though writing is much more ancient than we earlier thought -- as much as 10,000 years old. Neolithic peoples were the first farmers. Their lives were intimately tied to the seasons and the cycle of harvest. I'm certain they were attuned to the turning skies. Scholars haven't yet found proof that these peoples had the skill to pinpoint a celestial event like solstice. Earliest markers of time that we've found from these ancient peoples are notches carved into bone that appear to count the cycles of the moon. But perhaps they watched the movement of the sun as well as the moon, and perhaps they celebrated it -- with fertility rites, with fire festivals, with offerings and prayers to their gods and goddesses. And perhaps, our impulse to hold onto certain traditions today -- candles, evergreens, feasting and generosity -- are echoes of a past that extends many thousands of years further than we ever before imagined.

The ancients created huge efforts to observe the solstices. An utterly astounding array of ancient cultures built their greatest architectures -- tombs, temples, cairns and sacred observatories -- so that they aligned with the solstices and equinoxes. Many of us know that Stonehenge is a perfect marker of both solstices. But not so many people are familiar with Newgrange, a beautiful megalithic site in Ireland. This huge circular stone structure is estimated to be 5,000 years old, older by centuries than Stonehenge, older than the Egyptian pyramids! It was built to receive a shaft of sunlight deep into its central chamber at dawn on winter solstice. The light illuminates a stone basin below intricate carvings of spirals, eye shapes, & solar discs. Although not much is known about how Newgrange was used by its builders, marking the solstice was obviously of tremendous spiritual importance to them.

Maeshowe, on the Orkney Islands north of Scotland, shares a similar trait, admitting the winter solstice setting sun. It is hailed as "one of the greatest architectural achievements of the prehistoric peoples of Scotland."

Hundreds of other megalithic structures throughout Europe are oriented to the solstices and the equinoxes. The blossoming field of archaeoastronomy studies such sacred sites in the Americas, Asia, Indonesia, and the Middle East. Recent research into the medieval Great Zimbabwe in sub-Saharan Africa (also known as the "African Stonehenge") indicates a similar purpose. In North America, one of the most famous such sites is the Sun Dagger of Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, built a thousand years ago by the Chacoans, ancestors of the Pueblo people. Even cultures that followed a moon-based calendar seemed also to understand the importance of these sun-facing seasonal turning points.

And now a book, “The Sun in the Church” written by J. L. Heilbron, reveals that many medieval Catholic churches were also built as solar observatories. The church, once again reinforcing the close ties between religious celebration and seasonal passages, needed astronomy to predict the date of Easter. And so observatories were built into cathedrals and churches throughout Europe. Typically, a small hole in the roof admitted a beam of sunlight, which would trace a path along the floor. The path, called the meridian line, was often marked by inlays and zodiacal motifs. The position at noon throughout the year, including the extremes of the solstices, was also carefully marked.

Winter solstice was overlaid with Christmas, and the observance of Christmas spread throughout the globe. Along the way, we lost some of the deep connection of our celebrations to a fundamental seasonal, hemispheric event. Many people -- of many beliefs -- are looking to regain that connection now. I gain inspiration from the universality of the ancient ideas.

Winter solstice celebrations aren't just an invention of the ancient Europeans.

The Pueblo tribe observes both the summer and winter solstices. Although the specific details of the rituals differ from pueblo to pueblo, "the rites are built around the sun, the coming new year and the rebirth of vegetation in the spring....Winter solstice rites include...prayerstick making, retreats, altars, emesis and prayers for increase." The Hopi are dedicated to giving aid and direction to the sun which is ready to 'return' and give strength to budding life. Their ceremony is called "Soyal." It lasts for 20 days and includes "prayerstick making, purification, rituals and a concluding rabbit hunt, feast and blessing. There are countless stone structures created by First Nations Peoples of the past to detect the solstices and equinoxes. One was called Calendar One by its modern-day finder. It is in a natural amphitheatre of about 20 acres in size in Vermont. From a stone enclosure in the center of the bowl, one can see a number of vertical rocks and natural features in the horizon which formed the edge of the bowl. At the solstices and equinoxes, the sun rises and sets at notches or peaks in the ridge which surrounded the calendar.

Sun images are found in the rock paintings of the Chumash tribe, who occupied coastal California for thousands of years before the Europeans arrived. Solstices were tremendously important to them, and the winter solstice celebration lasted several days.

In Iran, there is the observance of Yalda, which refers to the birthday or rebirth of the sun. People gather at home around a korsee -- a low square table -- all night. They tell stories and read poetry. They eat watermelons, pomegranates and a special dried fruit/nut mix. Bonfires are lit outside.

Winter solstice celebrations are also part of the cultural heritage of Pakistan and Tibet. And in China, even though the calendar is based on the moon, the day of winter solstice is called "The Arrival of Winter" or Dong Zhi. The Winter Solstice is a big gastronomical day. People eat various kinds of chicken, pork, beef and mouton. This is known as "Doing the Winter" (Ju Dong) and everyone would be home dining with their families.

And what of Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights that occurs around this time every year? Is it related to other celebrations of the season?

The placement of Hanukkah is tied to both the lunar and solar calendars. It begins on the 25th of Kislev, three days before the new moon closest to the Winter Solstice. It commemorates an historic event — the Maccabees' victory over the Greeks and the rededication of the temple at Jerusalem. But the form of this celebration, a Festival of Lights (with candles at the heart of the ritual), makes Hanukkah wonderfully compatible with other celebrations at this time of year. As a symbolic celebration of growing light and as a commemoration of spiritual rebirth, it also seems closely related to other observances.

For the ancient Germanic and Celtic people, the impulse to celebrate solstice was the same as for their neighbors to the south -- a celebration of the cycle of nature and a reaffirmation of the continuation of life. But the style and substance of their celebrations took very different shape.

It isn't hard to figure out why. These northern cultures survived a colder, darker winter for one thing. And they were just as likely to be herders and hunters as farmers. It's cold, it's dark many more hours than light, and snows cover the fields where your herds might forage. What is there to do but make a delight of necessity, with a great slaughter and feasting?

And what better time to do it than at the point that marks the return of the sun's light and warmth?

Imagine living in, say, Scandinavia a thousand years ago. At solstice, the sun rises around 9 a.m. It sets about 3 p.m. A mere six hours of daylight. Even if you sleep for eight hours, you spend much more of your waking time in darkness than in light.

What a relief when the days begin to lengthen again!

Many of the ancient traditions surrounding Yuletide are concerned with coping with the darkness and the evils it was thought to harbor, and helping the return of light and warmth.

The return of the light is the most prominent feature of most midwinter festivals. In Sweden on St. Lucy’s Day, young girls don white dresses and a wreath of candles and awaken their families with cakes and song. Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, is celebrated by lighting candles over a span of eight days. The Christian custom of the Advent wreath, with its four candles, one lit each of the Sundays before Christmas, is another way of re-kindling the light.

Then there’s the holly. Evergreens were cherished at this time of year as a natural symbol of rebirth and life amid winter whiteness. But holly was particularly prized to decorate doors, windows and fireplaces because of its prickliness -- to either ward off or snag and capture evil spirits before they could enter and harm a household. Sort of like flypaper for faeries.

Of goats and elves. Scratch the surface of Christmas folklore in Scandinavian countries, and you find images and traditions that probably go way back. Perhaps this is because Christian missionaries didn't reach these countries until the 10th and 11th centuries, so the old traditions had longer to settle in. There's the Julbukk, or Yule goat, from Sweden and Norway, who had his beginnings as carrier for the god Thor. Now he carries the Yule elf when he makes his rounds to deliver presents and receive his offering of porridge.

I've even read somewhere that the Finnish version of this goat character, the Joulupukki, does the present deliveries himself by riding on a bicycle!

The Yule elf is called Jultomten in Sweden, Julesvenn in Norway, and Jule-nissen in Denmark and Norway. Jule-nissen was remembered fondly in 1908 by Jacob Riis: "I do not know how the forty years I have been away have dealt with Jule-nissen, the Christmas elf of my childhood....He was pretty old then, gray and bent, and there were signs that his time was nearly over. When I was a boy we never sat down to our Christmas Eve dinner until a bowl of rice and milk had been taken to the attic, where he lived with the martin and its young, and kept an eye upon the house--saw that everything ran smoothly. I never met him myself, but I know the house cat must have done so. No doubt they were well acquainted, for when in the morning I went in for the bowl, there it was, quite dry and licked clean, and the cat purring in the corner.....the Nisse, or the leprecawn--call him what you like--was a friend indeed to those who loved kindness and peace."

The YULE CAT - From Iceland comes the legend of the sinister and gargantuan Yule Cat, who, it seems, is ready to eat lazy humans. Those who did not help with the work of their village to finish all work on the autumn wool by Yule time got a double whammy -- they missed out on the Yule reward of a new article of clothing, and they were threatened with becoming sacrifices for the dreaded.

O! Mistletoe! And from the Celtic tradition comes mistletoe. There's so much to share about this amazing evergreen that it needs its own page. Briefly, it’s held sacred by both the Celtic Druids and the Norseman. Mistletoe was used by the Druid priesthood in a very special ceremony held around this time...five days after the New Moon following winter solstice, to be precise. The Druid priests would cut mistletoe from a holy oak tree with a golden sickle. The branches had to be caught before they touched the ground. The priest then divided the branches into many sprigs and distributed them to the people, who hung them over doorways as protection against thunder, lightning and other evils. The folklore, and the magical powers of this plant, blossomed over the centuries. A sprig placed in a baby's cradle would protect the child from faeries. Giving a sprig to the first cow calving after New Year would protect the entire herd. And of course, to be caught under the Mistletoe meant you received a kiss, which has its charming origin in Norse mythology. It's the story of a loving, if overprotective, mother. The Norse god Balder was the best loved of all the gods. His mother was Frigga, goddess of love and beauty. She loved her son so much that she wanted to make sure no harm would come to him. So she went through the world, securing promises from everything that sprang from the four elements--fire, water, air, and earth--that they would not harm her beloved Balder.

Leave it to Loki, a sly, evil spirit, to find the loophole. The loophole was mistletoe. He made an arrow from its wood. To make the prank even nastier, he took the arrow to Hoder, Balder's brother, who was blind. Guiding Holder's hand, Loki directed the arrow at Balder's heart, and he fell dead. Frigga's tears became the mistletoe's white berries. In the version of the story with a happy ending, Balder is restored to life, and Frigga is so grateful that she reverses the reputation of the offending plant--making it a symbol of love and promising to bestow a kiss upon anyone who passes under it. So many Yule traditions.

Of course, there's the tree, so layered over with folklore and speculations about its origin that one could write an entire book about it. Indeed, someone already has. California writer Sheryl Ann Karas brings us “The Solstice Evergreen”. One historical note about Christmas trees I found most odd--originally in many places, they were hung upside down.

And there's the famous Yule Log, immortalized in carols and in a delicious French dessert. But from where did its origins begin? Well, in the attempt to drive the darkness back, of course, and to keep the festivities going.

Many customs once surrounded the Yule log. For instance, the Yule log was never to be bought but should be received as a gift, found or taken from you own property. Often the log to be burned at midwinter was chosen early in the year and set aside. Tradition varies about the type of wood was to be used. What was important was that the Yule log be the biggest and greenest log available since the festivities lasted only as long as the Yule log burned.

The Yule log was first brought into the house with great ceremony on the eve of the solstice. Usually it was decorated with holly and ivy and other evergreens of the season and was lit with a piece of last year's log.

The Yule log was left to burn all night, and, if possible, through the next twelve nights without going out. The ashes were kept for good luck as they were believed to have magical properties and were scattered in the fields to fertilize the soil or sprinkled around the house for protection. Today some people prefer to use a Yule log as a decoration and place candles on it instead, thus transforming it into a candelabra, like the Jewish menorah or the kinara of Kwanza.

It must be noted that December is also a time of celebration for other cultural beliefs that have nothing to do with the Winter Solstice, such as…. The first day of the Islamic lunar month of Ramadan occurs in December. The actual date for the start of Ramadan depends upon the sighting of the crescent moon, and thus can be delayed by a few days from the nominal date. This is the holiest period in the Islamic year. It honors the lunar month in which the Qura'n was revealed by God to humanity. It is during this month that Muslims observe the Fast of Ramadan. Lasting for the entire month, Muslims fast during the daylight hours and in the evening eat small meals and visit with friends and family. It is a time of worship and contemplation. A time to strengthen family and community ties.

Kwanzaa is a 7day festival celebrating the African American people, their culture and their history. It is a time of celebration, community gathering, and reflection. A time of endings and beginnings. Kwanzaa begins on December 26th and continues until New Years Day, January 1st.

In the faith that our own Eileen practices the month of December celebrates Chango on the 3rd, the day for Babalouiaye, St. Lazero the healer on the 17th and the celebration of Yemaya of the Oceans falls on the 31st.

December 8th Bodhi Day celebrates Buddha's Enlightenment;
the 18th observes Al Hijra, the Muslim New Year;
However you celebrate, and by whatever name you call it:
May your celebration of this season of holidays draw deep from the abundant joy and enduring traditions of ALL of our ancestors.


Blessed Be!

Willow