Winter Solstice: Celebrate the Return of the Light!
It’s Solstice time! As I write this in 2020 it’s just a little more than 24 hours away.
For now, I’m not going to talk about the significance of Solstice during 2020… but I thought I’d share a blog I wrote a couple of years ago for Confluence Daily. I’ve written about Solstices and Equinoxes for years… but somehow there is not a Winter Solstice article on this site.
Today that is remedied!
The December Solstice is the shortest day of the year if you live in the Northern Hemisphere. The actual date/time of Solstice varies according to the sun’s particular pattern that year. But it’s nearly always on the 20th, 21st or 22nd. This year it is Monday, December 21st.
That will be the shortest night of the year. After that the days will very slowly begin to grow longer again. It is a celebration of the return of the light!
If you live south of the equator, of course, it is all opposite. It’s your Summer Solstice. You all have reached your peak of daylight and now your sunrises will be just a bit later each morning.
I’ve always been fascinated with how humans developed holiday celebrations and traditions to ease them through these darkest days, and to celebrate the return of the light.
Pagan Roots of our Winter Holiday Celebrations
Christmas! We love it, we hate it, and some of us just tolerate it. Many of us join in the festivities even if we are not practicing Christians – we exchange gifts with friends and family, we put up lights and trim the Christmas tree, our kitchens exude the sweet smells of baking cookies. And really all of this can be kind of fun, even if it is a bit exhausting.
Did you ever wonder, though, just what all this baking, decorating and gift-giving has to do with the birth of Jesus? How did all these holiday customs come about anyway?
Actually, most of them have nothing to do with Christianity. What really happened is that the early Christians hijacked this winter holiday, along with many of its rituals, from the ancient pagans and their celebration of the Winter Solstice.
The Celts of Northern Europe, the Romans, and people all over the Northern Hemisphere have celebrated the Solstice for eons. When the early Christian Fathers were converting these so-called heathens, they arbitrarily declared the birth date of Jesus to be December 25th.
In reality, nobody knew when the exact date was, but it worked out well for this new religion to establish the holiday in late December because all those pagans were already partying and celebrating. (Incidentally, they did this with many of the old pagan holidays, thus, the Spring Equinox became Easter, Samhain, or Halloween, became All Soul’s Day, etc.)
In late December, in the dead of winter, the European pagans made a pretty big deal of the return of the Sun from its long journey into the darkness. This was long before electric lights and gas heaters, and people depended on the health of the crops for their survival.
You can imagine that it was a cause for celebration indeed when the sun began to shine for longer and longer each day.
We know it as the Winter Solstice – that moment when the sun at its greatest distance from the celestial equator. The Romans called it Saturnalia, the Northern European Celts often referred to it as Yule, but whatever its name it was definitely a cause for celebration.
Many ancients believed that if the Sun was not honored at this time that it would never come back, and the earth would be forever shrouded in darkness. In addition to ensuring their very survival, the returning sun signified the end of the old year and the ushering in of the new.
And so, all through Northern Europe, many different rituals and traditions evolved to welcome the Return of the Light. Some have disappeared forever or are shrouded in mystery—even modern scientists are still not sure how the rocks of Stonehenge were used to usher in the returning sun.
Other rituals have been revived by modern-day Wiccans and Neo-Pagans. And lots more have carried over, in some form or another, into our modern day Christmas customs.
The Burning of The Yule Log
Our current custom of decorating a Christmas tree most likely stems from the tradition of the Yule Log. The ceremonial burning of the Yule Log was a central element of the Winter Solstice festivities and it symbolized the blazing forth of the newborn sun.
In the old days, a log of oak was chosen early in the year and then kept in a special place. As the Solstice approached the log was brought inside and decorated with sacred evergreens. On the night of the Winter Solstice the Yule log was always lit with an unburned portion of the log from the previous year.
The log was burned for twelve hours, and in some places they kept it ablaze for twelve nights. People would gather around the Yule fire and tell stories, sing songs, and feast all night long. When the merry-making was over, they kept the log in the house all year because the believed it to protect the home and everyone in it from illness and adversity.
Eventually, as the European pagans were slowly converted to Christianity, the Yule log was replaced by an evergreen tree which was brought into the house and adorned with burning candles. The veneration of the sacred oak trees of the Druids was transformed into a belief in the sacredness of ‘God’s’ evergreen tree.
Over time, probably wisely, we have substituted the candles with strings of lights and ornaments.
Bringing Greenery Inside
Decorating the home with greenery at Christmas time is another custom that reaches way back to the pre-Christian era. Holly, ivy, mistletoe, yew, and many other herbs and evergreens, each had their own magical significance representing the cycle of everlasting life. People would ‘deck the halls’ to honor the nature spirits and to bring good luck.
The Church Fathers actually tried to suppress this custom for a while, but obviously, they failed miserably, and a good thing too because adorning your home with fresh greenery from the outdoors can do wonders to chase away the winter darkness doldrums.
People also made wreaths from these magical plants to symbolize the Wheel of the Year.
Pagans celebrate the cyclic flow of the year at eight points during the year’s cycle. These included the Solstices and Equinoxes as well as four ‘cross-quarter’ days that occur halfway between the Solstice and Equinox. This is the Wheel of the Year.
So, that holiday wreath you have hanging on your door is essentially a symbol of the pagan year. In fact, the word ‘Yule’ means wheel.
Who Knew About the Mistletoe?
Kissing under the mistletoe is another tradition passed down to us from the Druids. This plant was sacred to the Druids who gathered it from the high branches of sacred oak trees with golden sickles. This mystical ritual was performed not only at Yule but also at the Summer Solstice, or Midsummer. The winter mistletoe, with its white berries, was often made into an amulet of fertility.
The golden rootlets of the mistletoe symbolized the sun and its return to the northern world. Just exactly how the kissing ritual began is lost in the fog of history, but it probably had something to do with its magical properties of fertility, or maybe simply because people needed something to do during those long winter nights.
Even our modern day Santa Claus figure is rooted in myths and stories that have been around for millennia.
Today Christmas lights and bayberry candles have replaced burning Yule logs, and, though we no longer gather our mistletoe with sacred sickles, we still like to hang it up in the doorway and hope for kisses.
Baking cookies, pies and other confections is a much-loved holiday tradition the world over. We all have own special recipes, and whether we bake them or buy them, eating delicious treats is a favorite part of wintertime merry-making. It’s become a bit overkill nowadays, and many of us struggle with whether to eat or not eat the plethora of treats everywhere.
But, to our pagan ancestors, to eat these specially baked and sweetened treats at Solstice time was to partake of the body of the Grain God/Goddess while ensuring ‘sweetness’ in the year to come. The Europeans didn’t have sugar in those days, but they used honey as a sweetener.
Today, tonight and tomorrow modern-day pagans the world over will honor the Winter Solstice with all night vigils and other rituals. If you want, you can make up your own rituals and traditions to celebrate and give thanks for the return of the light.
You don’t have to find an oak log to burn or stay up all night (although if you want to, by all means, go ahead), but you can light candles throughout your home. Turn off the lights and say a prayer or sing a song in celebration.
Make a wish for the New Year. If you haven’t done it already, cut some fresh greenery from outdoors and bring it inside (shake out any bugs first though!) Bake some special holiday sweet treats (healthy recipes abound!) and serve them to your friends and family.
Sit around a fire, or even just a circle of candles, and share songs and stories with loved ones to celebrate the return of the light and to feel connected with the Ancients.
And, next time you see a wreath of evergreens hanging on someone’s front door you’ll know that, intentionally or not, the sacred Wheel of the Year is being honored.