Good day, good health, the sun shines upon us! Indeed today is a day of celebration for those of us who live in the Northern Hemisphere. While December 21 may be the darkest day of the year in terms of hours of daylight available to us, this day being the winter solstice marks the beginning of longer days and it can only get brighter from here!
Long before humans understood the solar system we explained the diminishing daylight and nature’s retreat by telling stories and legends of Goddesses capturing the Sun and battles won that returned light to the humans below. We practiced rituals that expressed our gratitude for all that had been brought to us, and kept our spirits up through stories that provided some reassurance that spring would return.
Yule, as the winter solstice is also named, has resulted in being a time of great symbolism and power and a reason to celebrate. From the Roman feast of Saturnalia to the pre-Christian festival of Norse Jul our ancestors came to honour the day with much feasting and merrymaking. As with many modern celebrations, ancient festivals observing the winter solstice merged with newer traditions to create the holiday season as we know it today. Some examples include:
- Alban Arthan is probably the oldest seasonal festival of humankind left over from Druidic traditions. Welsh for « Light of Winter », it marks the moment in time when the Old Sun dies (at dusk on the 21st of December) and when the Sun of the New Year is born (at dawn on the 22nd of December). The birth of the New Sun is thought to revive the Earth’s aura in mystical ways, giving a new lease on life to spirits and souls of the dead.
- In Scandinavia, the Norse celebrated Yule from December 21 through January. Fathers and sons would bring home large logs, to be set on fire and people would feast until the log burned out, which could take as many as 12 days. The Norse believed that each spark from the fire represented a new pig or calf that would be born during the coming year.
- Iceland also celebrates Yule with winter solstice celebrations dating back thousands of years before Christmas. Thirteen days before December 24th, children leave out shoes by the window so that the Yule Lads, the two sons of trolls living the mountains known for their mischief, can leave them small presents.
Now that we understand the physical forces of the universe a little better, and we hold back the darkness and cold with modern day conveniences, we don’t even think about these ancient myths much less need them to carry on. Yet, many of these winter solstice rituals and customs have prevailed from the time of our ancestors and are still with us thousands of years later.
The winter solstice inspires a deep time of reflection for me, where I am perhaps more deeply connected with the wonder and mastery of nature, and take more humble steps when I walk. Winter slows down the pace of life. Plants go dormant until spring, and like the animals that go into hibernation, I too feel an urge to retreat in a warm shelter and undertake a restorative process.
I like that some of our holiday traditions connect to the symbolism of past rituals with a time of inner reflection. Over time I have made an effort to shift from a hectic pace of social engagements and busy occupations to allow more time for contemplation. Here are some of my winter solstice rituals:
- Setting up a “yuletide altar” by incorporating seasonal greenery, and winter’s fruits such as berries, nuts, pinecones into my home decor
- Welcoming the sun with candles and symbols of light
- Cleansing my space by decluttering and cleaning to freshen up our space and even adding spices and herbs to teas to bring in uplifting scents
- Meditating and trying different devotionals each day to prepare me for the new year
These practices holds some significance for me and help me acknowledge the wonder and mystery of nature and hopefully inspires me to walk a little more humbly on this earth, for it is much bigger than us. I don’t often get it right, but I like to think I am on the right path.