Solstice is a word that means “to stand still.” In the northern hemisphere the sun has been moving south rising a bit lower on the horizon ever since the summer solstice. The turning of the seasonal wheel into winter marks not only a new season but the beginning of a new year after the sun reaches it’s most southerly declination as seen from the earth in northern climates. At the solstice the north pole is tilted furthest away from the sun and so on December 21 we will experience the longest night of the year. By the 22nd the sun will have reversed directions, turning north, rising a little higher in the sky each day and bringing with it longer days, and eventually warmer temperatures… Thus the winter solstice is both a process – the turning of the wheel – and an event – the moment in time when the sun stands still and then reverses his direction.
Nature brings a number of gifts to those of us who live in the northern hemisphere. Longer nights bring time for dreaming, our skies are more transparent (due to lack of moisture), and brilliant starry nights both stir and stun us with their ethereal beauty. The Geminid meteor showers peaked around the 12th to the 15th of December. Winter constellations like the Great Bear who appears to follow the Little Bear and his north star (Polaris) are easy to locate in the northern sky early in the evening. The Pleiades or the seven sisters is a cluster of stars quite visible overhead, as is Cassiopeia in the northeast sky and the Gemini twins (Castor and Pollux) are noticeable in the eastern sky. The dog star Sirius is at its brightest in the southeast along with Orion…Of course the last gift Nature brings us is the coldest days of winter, because even though the sun is moving north in the northern hemisphere the oceans continue to cool and most of our weather is driven by ocean temperatures, which this year are warmer than usual.
We are all familiar with the Judeo – Christian seasonal rituals so I will not discuss them here. Less known is the fact that people around the world celebrate the return of the sun with fire festivals, evergreens or other plants, trees, dancing, food, and the drinking of wine, and they have done most of these things since Neolithic times (and no doubt before). To Pagan peoples – the word pagan means country people – the deities of the winter solstice are new born gods or sun gods, but also include mother goddesses like Mary, or virgin (as in “one unto herself”) goddesses like Brigid, and the triple goddess of pre – Christian origin.
Most of the people were agricultural folk so Nature continues to be the central focus of winter solstice rituals. No pagan would consider cutting down a tree because trees were sacred symbolizing the Tree of Life; only boughs and branches were used in rituals and celebrations.
The celebrated Horned god, or green man of the Celts was honored with a wreath of greens at the winter solstice. In Scandinavia St Lucia’s Day (Lucia means light) is celebrated as a festival of lights. Young girls wear crowns made of evergreens lit with candles. A Yule log is burned to insure the sun’s return. The Greeks celebrate the feast of Dionysus by drinking the wine made from grapes celebrating a successful harvest and by wearing laurel wreaths as crowns; the lighting of fires and dancing are all part of this ritual. A sprig of basil is wrapped round an equilateral wooden cross to discourage the dark spirits that appear only during this celebration that lasts for twelve days. The Roman festival of Saturnalia occurs around December 25th and addresses the limits of Saturn as a god and the necessity of working through spiritual difficulties. In Romania wives bake special cakes for the trees that are barren so that they will be spared another year. A log from Yggdrasil, the sacred tree of the Teutons symbolizes the sun and when burned brings light into the dark nights of the winter solstice. The Hindu people place clay oil lamps on their roofs in honor of the return of the sun. Yalda is the Persian festival of Mithra whose victory of light over darkness is celebrated over the winter solstice. Today Druids gather at Stonehenge to welcome the sun’s return.
Indigenous peoples of the Americas also hold celebrations during this time of year. The Hopi welcome the Kachinas, the protective spirits that come down from the mountains. They carry evergreen boughs that represent the tree of life. The Iroquois celebrate the night of the solstice as the dreaming time during which the people walk between two worlds. When the dawn comes the they gather in a circle to share visions that will guide the people through the year to come.
In most European traditions the emphasis is on the birth of the god, or the return of the light. The Celtic goddess Brigid provides us with a sharp contrast to this predominantly masculine view. Brigid is a triple goddess who is perceived to be a female solar deity in all her aspects. Her attributes are light, inspiration and all skills associated with fire. ‘She hangs her cloak on the rays of the sun, and her dwelling place radiates light as if on fire.’ The fires of her inspiration are demonstrated through her poetry, divination and through prophecy; she keeps oral traditions alive. She taught humans the skill of making and tending fire and during the winter solstice she presides over the hearth fires in every home. As mistress of the primal element of fire she molds metal (earth) through her skill and knowledge as a transformer. At the winter solstice Brigid’s flame pierces the darkness of spirit and mind, while her cauldron promises that nature will provide.
Here is a second Celtic story that provides context for the birth of the god. As the winter solstice approaches The Great Mother lifts the god out of the ground and places him in the sky as light. She offers him the gift of her knowledge and passes along ancient traditions to strengthen and guide him on his journey. This teaching process ages her because it takes so much effort so it is not just the god who is transformed but the Great Mother’s identity shifts as well – after the teaching she becomes the Wise Old Woman who waits at the three way crossroad to assist those who will be born and those who will die. She is also found sitting at the well or tending the cauldron of immortality. The Celts celebrate the twelve days of the winter solstice beginning December 20th and include all these figures. The first three days are dedicated to the maiden goddess that belongs to spring. The second three days are dedicated to the mother goddess whose fertility impregnates the earth, the third three days celebrate the birth of the new god from sheaves of wheat, corn, or the sun/son…and the last three days honor the old woman for her teachings and wisdom. It is important to note that the triple goddess who births the god is one aspect of three deities that are also One. This pre-historic holistic approach interrupts the fragmentation that is endemic to modern culture reminding us that to celebrate the birth of the god, or the return of the sun is to also celebrate the triple goddess as mistress of the fires of transformation.
I celebrate this peaceful time of year by stringing a festival of lights both inside and out. I also tip balsam branches to make a wreath that symbolizes the Circle of Life and the Sanctity of Nature. I light my “Guardian” tree, a young cedar, and hang crystal prisms on her lacy fronds that reflect all the colors of the rainbow when the wind plays my wind chimes.
The winter solstice is a time to release old attachments, a time to dream, a time to imagine new possibilities and create intentions for the future, and I weave all these ideas into a simple written ritual that I will enact on the eve of the winter solstice gazing into my solstice fire. This year I will light the balsam candles in Brigid’s name and burn balsam on my wood stove to sweeten the longest night. The following morning I will leave special gifts of food for my beloved birds most especially the cardinals (my Red Bird) and the deer, giving thanks for the gift of all life.