The Winter Solstice
Barren winter, with his wrathful nipping cold; ... the icy fang and churlish chiding of the winter's wind...bites and blows upon my body; I shrink with cold; what freezings I have felt, what dark days seen, what old December's bareness everywhere! I, that did never weep, now melt with woe that winter should cut off our spring-time so; hideous winter ...sap cheque'd with frost, and lusty leaves quite gone, beauty o'ersnow'd and bareness every where;boughs which shake against the cold, bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang; freeze, freeze, though bitter sky.
- King Henry VI, Part II; Act 2, Scene 4
The winter solstice, hiemal solstice or hibernal solstice, also known as midwinter, occurs when one of the Earth's poles has its maximum tilt away from the Sun. It happens twice yearly, once in each hemisphere (Northern and Southern). For that hemisphere, the winter solstice is the day with the shortest period of daylight and longest night of the year, when the Sun is at its lowest daily maximum elevation in the sky. At the pole, there is continuous darkness or twilight around the winter solstice. Its opposite is the summer solstice. Also the Tropic of Cancer or Tropic of Capricorn depending on the hemispheres winter solstice the sun goes 90 degrees below the horizon at solar midnight to the nadir.
The winter solstice occurs during the hemisphere's winter. In the Northern Hemisphere, this is the December solstice (usually 21 or 22 December) and in the Southern Hemisphere, this is the June solstice (usually 20 or 21 June). Although the winter solstice itself lasts only a moment, the term sometimes refers to the day on which it occurs. Other names are "midwinter", the "extreme of winter" (Dongzhi), or the "shortest day". Traditionally, in many temperate regions, the winter solstice is seen as the middle of winter, but today in some countries and calendars, it is seen as the beginning of winter. In meteorology, winter is reckoned as beginning about three weeks before the winter solstice.
Since prehistory, the winter solstice has been seen as a significant time of year in many cultures, and has been marked by festivals and rituals. It marked the symbolic death and rebirth of the Sun. The seasonal significance of the winter solstice is in the reversal of the gradual lengthening of nights and shortening of days.
Western culture owes many of the traditional midwinter celebrations-including those of Christmas-to Saturnalia, an ancient Roman solstice celebration dedicated to the Saturn, the god of agriculture and time. Though it started out as a one-day celebration earlier in December, this pagan festival later expanded into a riotous weeklong party stretching from December 17 to 24. During this jolliest and most popular of Roman festivals, social norms fell away as everyone indulged in gambling, drinking, feasting and giving gifts. Even slaves got to partake in the festivities; they did not work, and some masters turned the tables and served their slaves.
Derived from older farming-related rituals of midwinter and the winter solstice, especially the practice of offering gifts or sacrifices to the gods during the winter sowing season.
The pagan celebration of Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture and time, began as a single day, but by the late Republic (133-31 B.C.) it had expanded to a weeklong festival beginning December 17. (On the Julian calendar, which the Romans used at the time, the winter solstice fell on December 25.)
During Saturnalia, work and business came to a halt. Schools and courts of law closed, and the normal social patterns were suspended.
People decorated their homes with wreaths and other greenery, and shed their traditional togas in favor of colorful clothes known as synthesis. Even slaves did not have to work during Saturnalia, but were allowed to participate in the festivities; in some cases, they sat at the head of the table while their masters served them.
Instead of working, Romans spent Saturnalia gambling, singing, playing music, feasting, socializing and giving each other gifts. Wax taper candles called cerei were common gifts during Saturnalia, to signify light returning after the solstice.
The Roman poet Catullus famously described it as "the best of times." So riotous were the festivities that the Roman author Pliny reportedly built a soundproof room so that he could work during the raucous celebrations.
The Christian holiday of Christmas, especially, owes many of its traditions to the ancient Roman festival, including the time of year Christmas is celebrated. The Bible does not give a date for Jesus' birth; in fact, some theologians have concluded he was probably born in spring, as suggested by references to shepherds and sheep in the Nativity story
But by the fourth century A.D., Western Christian churches settled on celebrating Christmas on December 25, which allowed them to incorporate the holiday with Saturnalia and other popular pagan midwinter traditions
Pagans and Christians co-existed (not always happily) during this period, and this likely represented an effort to convince the remaining pagan Romans to accept Christianity as Rome's official religion.
Before the end of the fourth century, many of the traditions of Saturnalia-including giving gifts, singing, lighting candles, feasting and merrymaking-had become absorbed by the traditions of Christmas as many of us know them today.
Other Celebrations and Traditions
St. Lucia's Day
This traditional festival of lights in Scandinavia honors St. Lucia, one of the earliest Christian martyrs, but was incorporated with earlier Norse solstice traditions after many Norsemen converted to Christianity around 1000 A.D. According to the old Julian Calendar, December 13 (the date that is traditionally given as the day in 304 A.D. when the Romans killed Lucia for bringing food to persecuted Christians hiding in Rome) was also the shortest day of the year. As a symbol of light, Lucia and her feast day blended naturally with solstice traditions such as lighting fires to scare away spirits during the longest, darkest night of the year. On St. Lucia's day, girls in Scandinavia wear white dresses with red sashes and wreaths of candles on their heads, as an homage to the candles Lucia wore on her head to light her way as she carried the forbidden food in her arms.
The Chinese celebration of the winter solstice, Dong Zhi (which means "Winter Arrives") welcomes the return of longer days and the corresponding increase in positive energy in the year to come. Occurring only six weeks before the Chinese New Year, the festival has its own significance for many people, and is believed to be the day when everyone gets one year older. The celebration may have begun as a harvest festival, when farmers and fisherman took time off to celebrate with their families. Today, it isn't an official holiday, but remains an occasion for families to join together to celebrate the year that has passed and share good wishes for the year to come. The most traditional food for this celebration in southern China is the glutinous rice balls known as tang yuan, often brightly colored and cooked in sweet or savory broth. Northern Chinese enjoy plain or meat-stuffed dumplings, a particularly warming and nourishing food for a midwinter celebration.
On the longest night of the year, Iranians all over the world celebrate the triumph of Mithra, the Sun God, over darkness in the ancient festival of Shab-e Yalda (which translates to "Night of Birth"). According to tradition, people gather together on the longest night of year to protect each other from evil, burning fires to light their way through the darkness and performing charitable acts. Friends and family join in making wishes, feasting on nuts, pomegranates and other festive foods and reading poetry, especially the work of the 14th-century Persian poet Hafiz. Some stay awake all night to rejoice in the moment when the sun rises, banishing evil and announcing the arrival of goodness.
In Peru, like the rest of the Southern Hemisphere, the winter solstice is celebrated in June. The Inti Raymi (Quechua for "sun festival"), which takes place on the solstice, is dedicated to honoring Inti, the sun god. Before the Spanish conquest, the Incas fasted for three days before the solstice. Before dawn on the fourth day, they went to a ceremonial plaza and waited for the sunrise. When it appeared, they crouched down before it, offering golden cups of chicha (a sacred beer made from fermented corn). Animals-including llamas-were sacrificed during the ceremony, and the Incas used a mirror to focus the sun's rays and kindle a fire. After the conquest, the Spaniards banned the Inti Raymi holiday, but it was revived in the 20th century (with mock sacrifices) and continues today
Like the Zuni, the Hopi of northern Arizona are believed to be among the descendants of the mysterious Anasazi people, ancient Native Americans who flourished beginning in 200 B.C. (As the Anasazi left no written records, we can only speculate about their winter solstice rites, but the placement of stones and structures in their ruins, such as New Mexico's Chaco Canyon, indicate they certainly took a keen interest in the sun's movement.) In the Hopi solstice celebration of Soyal, the Sun Chief takes on the duties of the Zuni Pekwin, announcing the setting of the sun on the solstice. An all-night ceremony then begins, including kindling fires, dancing and sometimes gift-giving. Traditionally, the Hopi sun-watcher was not only important to the winter solstice tradition, as his observation of the sun also governed the planting of crops and the observance of Hopi ceremonies and rituals all year long.
In Japan, the winter solstice is less a festival than a traditional practice centered around starting the new year with health and good luck. It's a particularly sacred time of the year for farmers, who welcome the return of a sun that will nurture their crops after the long, cold winter. People light bonfires to encourage the sun's return; huge bonfires burn on Mount Fuji each December 22. A widespread practice during the winter solstice is to take warm baths scented with yuzu, a citrus fruit, which is said to ward off colds and foster good health. Many public baths and hot springs throw yuzu in the water during the winter solstice. Many Japanese people also eat kabocha squash-known in the United States as Japanese pumpkin-on the solstice, as it is thought to bring luck.
Midwinter in Antarctica
Even Antarctica gets its share of solstice celebration, thanks to the researchers staying there over the long, dangerously cold season. While those of us in the Northern Hemisphere are enjoying the most daylight hours, in the Southern Hemisphere they are celebrating Midwinter. Festivities include special meals, films, and sometimes even handmade gifts.
Winter Solstice Lantern Festival in Vancouver
To honor the many cultural traditions that celebrate the winter solstice, Vancouver's Secret Lantern Society created the city's Solstice Lantern Festival. Participants can attend workshops to create their lantern, and then on the night of the solstice processions march throughout the city, culminating in fire performances. Attendees can also try to find their way through the Labyrinth of Light, a maze of 600 candles that invites visitors to let go of old thoughts and find new possibilities for the coming year.
Santo Tomas Festival, Guatemala
Although the Catholic church now observes the feast of St. Thomas on July 3, in Chichicastenango (Chichi), Guatemala, the festival is still celebrated for a week leading up to the winter solstice of December 21. Why? Likely because it's a mix of the Catholic ceremony with native Mayan rituals that may have been timed to the solstice. Today, the feast is marked with brightly colored traditional costumes, masks, parades, fireworks, and music. The highlight is the death-defying custom of the "Flying Pole" dance: climbing a 100-foot pole, tying on a rope, and jumping off the top.
Montol Festival, Cornwall, England
A reinterpretation of ancient Cornish winter traditions, the 12-year-old winter solstice festival of Montol in the town of Penzance celebrates the culture of England's westernmost peninsula. Wearing carnival-like costumes, "guisers" process with lanterns, creating a "river of fire" meant to celebrate the return of the sun. In the old custom, guisers (those wearing disguises) would roam the streets putting on skits, songs, and pranks; part of the fun was trying to guess who was who. Today, traditional music, dancing, and performances add to the festive atmosphere.
Feast of Juul
Until the 16th century, the winter months were a time of famine in northern Europe. Most cattle were slaughtered so that they wouldn't have to be fed during the winter, making the solstice a time when fresh meat was plentiful. Most celebrations of the winter solstice in Europe involved merriment and feasting. In pre-Christian Scandinavia, the Feast of Juul, or Yule, lasted for 12 days celebrating the rebirth of the sun and giving rise to the custom of burning a Yule log.
Pagan author T. Thorn Coyle wrote in a 2012 HuffPost article that for many contemporary celebrants, solstices "are a chance to still ourselves inside, to behold the glory of the cosmos, and to take a breath with the Sacred."
In the Northern hemisphere, friends gather to celebrate the longest night. We may light candles, or dance around bonfires. We may share festive meals, or sing, or pray. Some of us tell stories and keep vigil as a way of making certain that the sun will rise again. Something in us needs to know that at the end of the longest night, there will be light. In connecting with the natural world in a way that honors the sacred immanent in all things, we establish a resonance with the seasons. Ritual helps to shift our consciousness to reflect the outer world inside our inner landscape: the sun stands still within us, and time changes. After the longest night, we sing up the dawn. There is a rejoicing that, even in the darkest time, the sun is not vanquished. Sol Invictus - the Unconquered Sun - is seen once again, staining the horizon with the promise of hope and brilliance.
Stonehenge is the UK's most famous site for solstice celebrations. On the winter solstice, visitors have the rare opportunity to enter the towering, mysterious stone circle for a sunrise ceremony run by local pagan and druid groups.
Celebrating the Winter Solstice in your home
Here are some tips if you want to celebrate the solstice in your home!
- Adorn the home with sacred herbs and colors. Decorate your home in Druidic holiday colors red, green, and white. Place holly, ivy, evergreen boughs, and pine cones around your home, especially in areas where socializing takes place.
- Hang a sprig of mistletoe above a major threshold and leave it there until next Yule as a charm for good luck throughout the year.
- Have family/household members join together to make or purchase an evergreen wreath. Include holiday herbs in it and then place it on your front door to symbolize the continuity of life and the wheel of the year.
- If you choose to have a living or a harvested evergreen tree as part of your holiday decorations, call it a Solstice tree and decorate it with Pagan symbols
- Convey love to family, friends, and associates. At the heart of Saturnalia was the custom of family and friends feasting together and exchanging presents. Continue this custom by visiting, entertaining, giving gifts, and sending greetings by mail and/or phone. Consider those who are and/or have been important in your life and share appreciation
- Honor the new solar year with light. Do a Solstice Eve ritual in which you meditate in darkness and then welcome the birth of the sun by lighting candles and singing chants and Pagan carols.
- If you have a indoor fireplace or an outdoor fire circle, burn an oak log as a Yule log and save a bit to start next year's fire.
- Decorate the inside and/or outside of your home with electric colored lights. Because of the popularity of five pointed stars as holiday symbols, this is a good time to display a pentagram of blue or white lights.
- Contribute to the manifestation of more wellness on Planet Earth. Donate food and clothing to poor in your area. Volunteer time at a social service agency.
- Put up bird feeders and keep them filled throughout the winter to supplement the diets of wild birds.
- Donate funds and items to non-profit groups, such as Pagan/Wiccan churches and environmental organizations. Meditate for world peace. Work magic for a healthier planet. Make a pledge to do some form of good works in the new solar year
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