How’s your temperature? Caught up in holiday madness?
Got a to-do list that makes Santa’s list look like a text? With traffic, weather and endless social opportunities, this time of year can stress even the calmest soul. And meanwhile, we’re heading into the shortest day of the year! How can that happen when we have so much to do? Ah, but remember, the shortest days translates into the longest night. We’re ready!
The Winter Solstice, which occurs this year on December 21st in the northern hemisphere, is commonly thought of as the shortest day of the year.
This longest night of the year marks a peak of natural energy. Amidst the craziness of outward doingness, the energies have been sending us within, into silence and a deep, inner exploration that began with the Autumnal Equinox, when day and night are equal. This inward journey is available to assist deeply internal transformational processes. Picture the shifting of the season like the removing of a candle from the inside of an altar. The altar is your inner world, and it is now time for the light within to break forth into the world.
Cultures globally celebrate this time of the year as the return of the light; When the sun enters the sign of Capricorn and the duration of daylight begins to increase until reaching the Spring Equinox, when the days and nights are of equal length.
No one is really sure how long ago humans recognized the Winter Solstice and began heralding it as a turning point. 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. Newgrange is a beautiful megalithic site in Ireland, a huge circular stone structure. It is estimated to be 5,000 years old, older by centuries than Stonehenge. It was built to receive a shaft of sunlight deep into its central chamber at dawn on solstice morning. Hundreds of other megalithic structures throughout Europe are oriented to the solstices and the equinoxes as well as sacred sites in the Americas, Asia, Indonesia, and the Middle East. Even cultures that followed a moon-based calendar also seemed to understand the importance of these sun-facing seasonal turning points.
One of our earliest civilizations, the Mesopotamians, have the first recorded celebrations. Situated within the Tigris – Euphrates river system, the modern area roughly corresponds to most of Iraq, Kuwait, parts of Northern Saudi Arabia, the eastern parts of Syria, Southeastern Turkey, and regions along the Turkish–Syrian and Iran–Iraq borders. They observed the time with a 12-day festival of renewal, designed to help the god Marduk tame the monsters of chaos for one more year.
Four thousand years ago, give or take a couple of centuries, ancient Egyptians celebrated the rebirth of the sun at this time of year. The festival lasted 12 days to reflect the 12 divisions in their solar calendar. They decorated with greenery, using palms with 12 chutes as a symbol of the completed year, as the palm was thought to put forth a shoot each month.
The placement of Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights, 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. This year it began on December 2nd. It commemorates a historical 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.
Older traditions merged in ancient Rome in a festival called Saturnalia, which was a huge holiday. Everyone gave themselves up to wild joy. The halls were decked with holly branches and evergreen wreaths. People visited family and attended lavish banquets and holiday parties. Gifts of silver, candles, figurines, and sweets (often tied to evergreen wreaths) were exchanged. It was also customary to light candles and roam the streets singing holiday songs (usually in the nude). The usual order of the year was suspended, grudges and quarrels were forgotten, and wars were interrupted or postponed. Businesses, courts, and schools were closed. A mock king, the Lord of Misrule, was crowned. Rich and poor were equal; slaves were served by masters and children headed the family. Cross-dressing, masquerades, and merriment of all kinds prevailed. Candles and lamps chased away the spirits of darkness.
Saturnalia began as a feast day for Saturn on December 17 and for Ops, the wife and sister of Saturn, on the 19th. She was the Roman goddess of the earth, fertility, wealth and abundance. The festivals were combined to cover a full week from December 17th to 23rd. By the third century CE, there were a variety of religions and spiritual mysteries being followed. Many, if not most, celebrated the birth of their god-man near the time of the solstice. Emperor Aurelian (270 to 275 CE) blended a number of pagan solstice celebrations of the nativity of such god-men/saviors as Apollo, Attis, Baal, Dionysus, Helios, Hercules, Horus, Mithra, Osiris, Perseus, and Theseus into a single festival called the “Birthday of the Unconquered Sun”(or Son) on December 25th.
Christmas was transposed onto Winter Solstice some 1600 years ago, centuries before the English language emerged from its Germanic roots. Eastern churches began to celebrate Christmas after 375 CE. The church in Jerusalem began in the 7th century, and Ireland started in the 5th century after which other countries followed.
Many symbols and practices associated with Christmas are of pagan origin: holly, ivy, mistletoe, the Yule log, gift exchanges, the decorated evergreen tree, magical reindeer, etc.
Polydor Virgil, an early British Christian said:
“Dancing, masques, mummeries, stageplays, and other such Christmas disorders now in use with Christians, were derived from these Roman Saturnalian and Bacchanalian festivals; which should cause all pious Christians eternally to abominate them.”
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 the solstice is called Dong Zhi, “The Arrival of Winter.” The cold of winter made an excellent excuse for a feast, so that’s how the Chinese observed it, with a celebration called Ju Dong, “doing the winter.”
Bringing it back to the present, how is your inner landscape responding to these seasonal and light changes? Have you had, or taken some time to turn inward and explore your own roots? The Solstice marks the moment to let your inward journey begin to turn outward once more.
As we move through the next quarter of the year toward the Spring Equinox, take some time to determine the light you want to emanate.
Begin to shine forth your intent. How will you do the winter? That will make the planting of your intention when the Sun enters Aries at the Spring Equinox next March more potent and likely to reach fruition.
“In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.” – Albert Camus
Merry Solstice to you!