Winter Solstice: Introduction
Author: Christina Aubin
Yule/Winter Solstice (between December 21st and 23rd) also known as: Nollaig; Yuletide, Alban Arthan; Juul; Jul; Jiuleis; Joulupukki; Children’s Day; Dies Natalis Invicti Solis; Saturnalia; Mid-Winter; Brumalia; Sacaea; Festival of Kronos (Cronos); Dazh Boh; Chaomos; Inti Raymi; Dong Zhi; Soyal; Sada; Touji; Zagmuk; Sacaea
The Astronomy and Science behind Winter Solstice:
In the Northern Hemisphere, Winter Solstice falls between December 21st and December 23rd, and marks the modern official beginning of winter. We begin to notice the sun getting lower in lower in the sky after Summer Solstice as it travels southward. At Winter Solstice the sun is at its most southeastern point over the Tropic of Capricorn in the northern hemisphere and has no apparent northward or southward motion. In other words, the sun rises and sets in its southernmost point at the time of Winter Solstice.
Winter Solstice marks the longest night of the year. During the winter the North Pole1 of the earth is tilted to its extreme away from the sun and the it’s position is south of the equator, creating winter’s increasingly longer days, as we receive less direct sunlight than the southern hemisphere. From the point of Winter Solstice the days begin slowly to become longer and longer.
The word Solstice is ancient Latin meaning, “sun” (sol) and “to stand still” (stice); it is a time when the sun and the moon appear to stand still in their nightly migration across the sky. Solstice occurs twice a year, summer and winter, when the sun is furthest from the Celestial Equator in its yearly figure eight migration pattern, called the analemma.
At Winter Solstice, the sun, in fact, does remain in its furthest southeast position for a period of three days, before resuming its northerly movement. Depending on one’s physical position in the northern hemisphere, to the naked eye the sun’s apparent journey would halt for a period of almost two weeks to under a week.
Winter Solstice in the Southern Hemisphere is on or about June 21st, it is when the sun is directly over the Tropic of Cancer, furthest north in its annual migration pattern. In the Northern Hemisphere, it is Summer Solstice. During this time the north is receiving far more direct sunlight than the Southern Hemisphere due to the Northern pole begin tilted towards the sun.
Winter Solstice Celebrations and Customs Introduction
The word winter comes from the Old English root word Wed, meaning water and also wet. In the Germanic word for winter is wintruz meaning the “wet season”, thus winter was always taken for a wet and thus uncomfortable period of time. The Welsh word for winter, Gaeafu, means not only winter but hibernate as well, a sentiment we can all understand when winter is upon us.
In the larger sense Winter Solstice is the time of seasonal renewal, the beginning of an emergence from winter, and from communal and personal hibernation. It is the time of internal and external renewal, as the Sun renews and begins its return journey to spring, so too does the soul.
Since times no longer remembered, Winter Solstice was a time of celebration, for it meant the turning point of winter and the eventual arrival of spring. The return, the rebirth, of the Sun was celebrated merrily across the globe with rituals that span back through the reaches of all time. Winter Solstice was called Mid-Winter, in reflection that from this point forward the sun was beginning its return journey to its summer zenith.
Winter Solstice is the season of light and dark, of chaos and order, of upheaval and stability, of despair and hope, of sorrow and joy, of old and new, it is the season of change, and change, then again. It is a time to look deep inside the darkness, deep into the abyss, into the unknown, deep into the chaos, into that is arcane and mysterious and find that new hope, that new light that guides us through, that light that lend its strength to understand and that light that prevails over the ever encroaching darkness.
Winter serves as a reminder that chaos and darkness does indeed exist and does at times, in fact, threaten to overtake our lives, our world and being. Chaos and darkness touch upon our very basal fears of being consumed by the seemingly ever-expanding void of disorder. Stirring those worries that hit our primeval determinations of survival. Causing doubts that we will lose all we have created, all we have known and all we have ever hoped for.
Like the darkness in winter, the light never truly goes away, but rather it withdraws and does eventually return, always. Light, ebbs and flows with the rhythms of all time, the rhythm that is life, death and life once more, the rhythms by which existence dances.
We assume that in an idealistic state there would be balance between light and dark always, idealistic or not? This idealistic world would be stagnant, arduous, never changing. If perfect balance existed continually between the light and the dark, we would be apathetic, unchallenged, and ordinary. For it is in this eternal ebb and flow of life that we find that beauty that is hope, compassion, love, grace and light.
We would never reach the heights of rapture and understanding of ourselves that only the battle and victory over darkness can bring. Darkness exists for the very good reason that without it, there would be no light, there would be no opportunity to find that strength that dwells deep within us, to touch the face of compassion, to understand that we need not fear the darkness for it allows us to find that inner light, and in understanding we find the path to the wisdom that only comes through our comprehension that darkness dwells so can we find the true light that resides within. It is this light that becomes the beacon of our lives, our understanding and our being, it guides us through the darkest times and brightens our journey in merry times, once found it is never lost for it is a part of who we are and the gift we bring to others.
Winter Solstice and its celebrations serve to remind us not to become fully engulfed by darkness, but rather choose to understand it and the gift it can bestow in the form of hope.
The Winter Solstice has always been associated with the return of the Light, the Sun and Hope as well as the retreat of the Darkness, Chaos and Despair. It is the time when the young king battles for control of the year from the old king, when the young God challenge the old God, when the Light takes domination from the Darkness, when Order is reinstated, when the Sun returns and with the young God takes command of the year.
Although folk customs may vary, the theme remains the same — it is the time of the return of the light, the sun, order, hope, remembrance of the ancestors and the times before. Acknowledgement of the rhythms of life, the need for order from chaos, the victory of light over the impending darkness all herald winter celebrations. As too is the knowledge that we, as the children of our ancestors, sprung forth, as their symbol of hope and promise and too that our children hold our hope and promise of life and that above all, the spark of hope is always there.
Essential to all Solstice celebrations is Light — in times past this was hearth fire, bonfire, and candles. Light and its consequential heat, were imperative to survival in the winter months. Light and fire also symbolized the return of the light in the form of the sun and a return to the glorious days of spring, summer, harvests and times of abundance.
Periods of somber, serious rituals, which were encompassed in a sense of urgency, were followed by feasts, gift giving, the visit of otherworldly gift givers, visiting, celebrations of family and friends and wonderful festivity mark Winter Solstice celebrations. The struggle, both personal and tribally, that was needed to endure winter was recognized and understood, as was the need to celebrate the midpoint success of doing so as one’s spirit can begin to wane mid-winter these festivities served as reminder that one was not alone and that the splendid days of spring and summer were indeed returning.
Winter Solstice rituals and celebrations recognize that this darkness is not just the physical darkness of winter, but also the darkness that creeps into our minds, clouds our vision, brings despair and hopelessness. The Light of Winter Solstice is as much about the outer light as it is about the inner light, that light which will guide us through our darkest times and serve as a beacon by which to live our lives.
The effort needed to overcome any area of darkness should never be trivialized or left without recognition, for it is the greatest battle we face, one certainly we could loose. However once battled and conquered, one always knows that one can again look into the face of darkness and be victorious.
Winter Solstice is a time that is marked by stories of those who have large changes of heart, of generosity, forgiveness, understanding, a time that is marked by those better qualities of humanity. It is only the journey through darkness that can bring true understanding of life’s journey and reminds us of what is truly important.
Symbolizing the impending chaos, role reversals were common, mock kings, who were slaves that became the owners for a period of time. As well as the practice of slaves and owners, rich and poor, those considered unlikely dining partners ate together. Winter Solstice practices such as these offered not only restructured the chaos but also offered a period of time to atone and release ourselves from old practices and patterns and offer us an opportunity to restructure our relationships. For the Light of Hope ever-present at Winter Solstice, offers us not only the light to see clearly but also an opportunity and a vehicle to create change. Allowing us time for new resolutions, for life changes, it is the opportunity that warms the heart and soul, and allows us to soften and transform, as the light transforms the winter.
Dramatizations of the Old King of the waning year and the New King of the waxing year were ever dominant of mid-winter celebrations. Passion plays of the struggle of the Holly King, he who rules winter, against the Young Oak King, he who rules summer for domination of the year were played out. In some areas, the ruler stepped down, went on a symbolic hunt assisting the God of Light regain His power, upon his return ascended to power once more.
The Solstices have been celebrated throughout all time by indigenous folk throughout the world, from the Celt lands to the mountains of South America, from the far northern reaches of Norway to the eastern reaches of the Orient, from Mesopotamia to Rome, from Persia to Russia and into Greece, we find the celebration of light and the return of sun during Mid-Winter.
Ancient customs and folklore still permeate current winter celebrations worldwide; we need only to look with an open heart and open mind to find the never-ending cycle that is life. Winter Solstice affords us the opportunity to deepen our relationship with the world, to give meaning through understanding, a chance to make the mundane and ourselves sacred.
Personally, Winter Solstice is the time when we honor the Goddess for giving birth to the Sun once more. It is the time we celebrate the victory of the Oak King over the Holly King, the Holly King representing death and darkness and the waning sun, and the Oak King representing the rebirth, life and the waxing sun.
Winter Solstice is the time of rituals and celebrations centered on renewal, increasing light, and to see the world through the wondrous eyes of a child. Spells to raise our spirits bring harmony, peace, and joys are done.
It is at Winter Solstice we strive to see the wisdom harvested from past experiences begin to glimmer, and in that glimmer we find hope, understanding and a renewed sense of being and direction. It is now we strive to have those personal experiences we yielded over the harvest season of the times gone past, begin to be reborn with as wisdom, new light, to guide us further down the Paths we have chosen to trod.
We decorate a tree; adorn the house with holly, ivy, pine and other evergreens to remind us that life is present even in death; they are entwined and never parted. We are visited Solstice eve by Father Winter, a white bearded chap dress in red, fur trimmed robes, who arrives bearing gifts to surprise the children on Solstice morning. We also exchange gifts and cards with family, friends and love ones, acknowledging their light and love in our lives.