Solstice - December 21st
Winter Solstice is when the North Pole is at it's
furthest point away from the sun, the shortest day and longest
As the Earth travels around the Sun in its orbit, the north-south
position of the Sun changes over the course of the year due
to the changing orientation of the Earth's tilted rotation
axes with respect to the Sun.
It celebrates the birth of the new Solar year and the beginning
of Winter. The Sun will have reached the most southerly point
in its travels across the celestial dome - and we can look
forward to the days starting to lengthen once more.
The winter solstice marks the shortest day and the longest
night of the year. The sun appears at its lowest point
in the sky, and its noontime elevation appears to be the
same for several days before and after the solstice. Hence
the origin of the word solstice, which comes from Latin
solstitium, from sol, "sun" and -stitium, "a
Following the winter solstice, the days begin to grow longer
and the nights shorter.
Festivals include Festivals of the Sun's rebirth
( days increasing in daylight ), Koleda, Day of Hathor, Laurentina,
Kutuja, Chaomos, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Junkanoo, Yule, and Christmas.
Solstice rites are one of our oldest celebrations, dating
back to the dawn of modern civilisation some 30,000 years
ago. For ancient peoples, the winter solstice was an awesome,
mysterious, and powerful phenomenon. Those of us today who
have ever pondered the ramifications of a cataclysmic event
such as a "nuclear winter" or the aftermath of
a giant meteor impact can understand how frightening it must
have been to see the sun slip away every fall. Harsh winter
conditions and scare food supplies made survival risky. Vegetation
was dormant, migratory birds had long since disappeared to
warmer climates, and many animals had vanished into hibernation.
As the weeks drew closer to the solstice, it was a time of
anxiety over ever-darkening days. What if the sun lost its
vigor and never came back? Would light and warmth simply
fade away forever? Would the earth be wrapped in eternal
night and cold?
Early peoples, living at the mercy of a hostile environment-
and also highly sensitive to natural phenomena-held supplicating
rites to the forces of nature as a way of ensuring the return
of longer, warmer days. To early cultures, the winter solstice
represented the death of the old solar year and the birth
of the new. Yule festivities, accordingly, marked this planetary
turning point away from darkness and the blessed return to
light. And although the comforts of today's modern civilization
now shield us from winter's harsh effects, Western cultures
continue-knowingly or unknowingly-to honour this tradition
through Yule celebrations.
Interestingly, Christmas (and its attendant holiday, Easter)
actually have roots in ancient beliefs going back tens of
thousands of years. Many folk holidays and celebrations were
absorbed into Christian culture in the early days of Christianity
to make the new religion more acceptable. There was no consensus
among early Church fathers over the date to use for Christ's
birth. (In fact, as devout Christians know, there is no certain
date for the birth of Christ. Current estimates based on
historical and astronomical records put it at around February
6, 6 B.C.) A December festival to celebrate the birth of
Christ didn't exist until the fourth century when Christians
simply adopted the popular Yule celebrations for their own
use. Roman churchmen favored the Mithraic winter solstice
festival, which they themselves had adopted from the Persians
called the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun.
On the old Roman calendar, 25th December (not 21st December
) was the date of the winter solstice. The winter solstice
was also the traditional date to honour the birth of the
pagan Divine Child, and Norsemen celebrated the birthday
of their lord, Frey, at the winter solstice. After much argument,
Pope Julius selected 25th December as Christ's Mass, or Christmas,
in 350 A.D.- in part to counter persistent pagan solstice
rites, but also because people of the time were already used
to calling it a god's birthday. (This proclamation was not
without objection, however. The date was so controversial
that eastern churches refused to honour it for another hundred
years, and the church of Jerusalem ignored the date until
the 7th century. And in an interesting twist, the fifth-century
Bishop of Constantinople firmly believed 25th December was
selected so Christians could celebrate Christ's birthday
undisturbed while "the heathen were busy with their
Even today, pagan and Christian belief is intermingled with
Christmas celebration. Many traditions that are now a part
of the mainstream Christian culture actually come from ancient
pagan celebrations-rites such as decorating with evergreens,
hanging ornaments on a tree, partaking of sweet confections,
processions, gift giving, wassailing or singing carols, and
the burning of the yule log.
Solstice Traditions Winter solstice observances were held
by virtually every culture in the world. Solstice rites were
practiced among such diverse groups as Native South Americans,
Celts, Persians, Orientals, and Africans. Solstice was known
as Sacaea to the Mesopotamians, as the Festival of Kronos
to the ancient Greeks, and as Saturnalia to the Romans. According
to Norse traditions, the Valkyrie looked for souls to bring
to Valhalla during Yule. Norwegians abstained from hunting
or fishing for the twelve days during Yule as a way of letting
the weary world rest and to hasten the revived sun's appearance.
In old Russia it was traditional to toss grain upon the
doorways where carolers visited as a way of keeping the house
from want throughout the rest of the winter. Ashes from the
Yule log were mixed with cows' feed in France and Germany
to promote the animals' health and help them calve. In Baltic
regions today, corn is scattered near the door of the house
for sustenance and ashes of the Yule log are given to fruit
trees to increase their yield. Romanians bless the trees
of the orchard on Yule with sweetened dough to bring good
harvests. Serbs toss wheat on the burning Yule log to increase
The most significant Yule tradition to persist over the centuries is the Christmas
tree. Although the origin of the Christmas tree is generally ascribed to Martin
Luther, its beginnings actually go back to pre-Christian times. Christmas trees
are thought to have evolved from the rite of symbolically selecting and harvesting
"sacred tree," a practice found in many ancient
cultures. Evergreens and firs were sacred to early
peoples, including the ancient Greeks, Celts, and Germans.
The first Yule trees were born when pagans went into the forests
during the winter solstice to give offerings to evergreens.
Pines and firs remained green while other vegetation lost their
leaves and appeared lifeless during the bitter winter cold.
Their mysterious survival and vigor seemed to signify a life
force within which carried with it the hope of renewed life.
The pinea silva or sacred pine groves that were attached to
pagan Roman temples also pre-figured the Christmas tree. On
the night before a holy day, Roman priests called "tree-
bearers" cut one of the sacred pines, decorated it, and
carried it into the temple. In fact, the German word for Christmas
tree is not Kristenbaum, or Christmas tree, but Tannenbaum,
or sacred tree.
Church leaders from the early centuries of the Church all
the way through Puritan society in 17th century Massachusetts
condemned the custom of bringing decorated evergreens into
the home at Yule time. The custom was so beloved and persistent,
however, that repeated attempts to eradicate 'heathen' practices
ultimately failed-and now these pagan traditions, which largely
celebrate nature, are among the most treasured elements of
Decorating the tree with objects resembling fruits, nuts,
berries, and even flowers is thought to be a symbolic act designed
to bring about the return of summer's bounty. In this way early
cultures hoped to hurry the return of spring, and ensure survival
through the rest of the harsh winter months.
Christmas wreaths are also ancient, and were traditionally
made of evergreens, holly, and ivy. The wreath's circle symbolizes
the wheel of the year and the completion of another cycle.
Holly represents the female element; ivy represents the male.
Like evergreens, holly was believed to contain a mysterious
life force because it bore berries in the middle of winter.
Both holly and ivy were thought to have magical properties,
and were used as protection against negative elements.
Kissing under the mistletoe is an old Druid tradition. Mistletoe was considered
highly sacred by this culture because, as a parasitic kind of vegetation, it
never touched the earth (growing instead on oaks and other trees), and also
because it bore berries in winter when everything else appeared dead. Druids
gathered the leaves and berries from special oaks with sickles made of gold.
They called mistletoe "all-heal" because they felt it had the power
of protection against illness and bad events, and also because they believed
mistletoe spread goodwill. Legend has it that enemies meeting under the mistletoe
cast their weapons aside, greeted each other amicably, and honoured a temporary
White linen clothes were spread beneath the mistletoe as it
was being gathered so none of it would touch the ground, lest
its power be accidentally released back to the earth. Mistletoe
berries were considered to be a powerful fertility substance.
A kiss under the mistletoe meant love and the promise of marriage.
Standing under a sprig of mistletoe sometimes subjected a person
to more than just a kiss.
Burning the Yule log is perhaps the oldest of all Yule traditions, possibly dating
back eons. Since the winter solstice was a solar holiday, fire in different
forms was closely associated with it. Fires and candles were lit during Yule
to give the waning sun renewed power and vigor- and also surely to provide
sources of cheery heat and light during the darkest part of the northern winter.
Even the burning brandy on plum pudding symbolized the sun's rebirth. Traditionally
the Yule log was made of oak; in northern European countries, the log was massive
enough to burn for the entire twelve days of Yule. It was selected early in
the year and set aside, then at winter solstice decorated with sprays of fir,
evergreen, holly, ivy, or yew. A piece of the previous year's Yule log was
used to light the new Yule log. Once the ashes were cold they were gathered
into powerful amulets, or scattered throughout the garden and fields to ensure
fertility and bounty in the coming year.
The spiritual ramifications of yule are profound for both
neo-pagans and Christians. For Christians, the birth of Christ
means a turning point between eternal death and eternal life.
Devout Christians celebrate Christmas as the beginning of a
new spiritual age of eternal life. For neo-pagans, Yule is
also a time of spiritual beginnings. Jul, or Yule, is an old
Anglo-Saxon word meaning "wheel." The winter solstice
is the turning point in the natural cycle of the year. Because
Yule signifies the completion of the wheel of the year, the
period around the winter solstice is considered to be a good
time for spiritual work. Some neo-pagans believe the dark nights
of winter are when the veil between the spirit world and the
living world is the thinnest. It is therefore an appropriate
time for self-examination and meditation on hidden energies-both
the energies lying dormant within the earth, and also those
within ourselves. Yule traditions celebrate nature's renewal,
and help affirm our connection to the energy and power of the
earth and the cosmos.