Winter Solstice – A Celebration of Light and Spiritual Rebirth
By Jessica Shepherd
Come December, we northerners crave light. As daylight wanes and night overwhelms, our homes are ablaze with track lights, reading lamps, lighted bathroom mirrors, and twinkling lights along the path to the woodshed. We don headlamps to take out the trash after the 4pm sunset and put glow collars on the dogs for their morning walk. Even our language reflects our love of the light - We speak "in glowing terms" and "enlighten" one another. We abhor being "kept in the dark.”
This far north, we spend half of the year rapidly losing light and the other half regaining it. In the recent past, our Swedish or Scottish grandparents depended on a bright fire and oil lamps to extend their productive hours and calm their nighttime fears. But in a few short generations, we have shifted from a balanced complement of busy summers and introspective winters to a well-lit and constantly moving society.
Have we lost something fundamental to our nature by bathing all that darkness in a fluorescent glow?
Winter invites reflection, with time to catch up on those books left half-read by the bedside and reconnect with friends and family we only reach out to during the holiday season. And it's a time to reassess and let go of old ways as we greet increasing day length with a New Year's resolution.
The celebrations of the season, be it Christmas, Hanukkah, or Yule, is an opportunity to give rise to our deeper nature. What brings you joy or peace? This slower season is an opportunity to get closer to our values and goodness. To celebrate life as we want it to be and to practice being who we want to be.
A spiritual or emotional reawakening can be fostered by quiet introspection before a warm fire in an otherwise dark room or through those deep conversations after the dishes are done and the dogs are asleep at our feet.
Many religions have events that coincide with this pivotal shift from dark to light. The celebration of Solstice or the return of light dates back to the earliest times. It's not hard to imagine our distant pagan mothers and fathers dancing around a Solstice fire that shot up sparks to mingle with the stars.
New Grange, in Ireland, has a huge stone circle estimated to be 5,000 years old, older by centuries than Stonehenge and older than the Egyptian pyramid. It was built to receive a shaft of sunlight deep into its central chamber at dawn on Winter Solstice.
Yule, a week-long celebration of feasting and firelight, began as an ancient pagan ritual among the Norse folk of Scandinavia. In ancient Greece, December 21st was called Lenaea or the Festival of the Wild Women (my personal favorite).
The placement of Hanukkah relates 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 starts on December 18th and ends on December 28th. Also called the festival of lights - the return of longer days is celebrated by lighting a succession of candles on the menorah each evening until all eight are glowing.
Native Americans have long observed Winter Solstice rites as well. For example, among Alaska's Inuit, all oil lamps were extinguished and rekindled by a common, newly-lit source as a symbol of the People's connection to the sun.
Early Catholic churches were built as solar observatories, and Winter Solstice was overlaid with Christmas some 1600 years ago. And it's likely no coincidence Bodhi Day on December 8th is the date that the Buddha achieved enlightenment.
Finally, today's Santa Clause is a folk figure with multicultural roots. He embodies characteristics of Cronos (a Greek god, also known as Father Time), the Holly King (the Celtic god of the dying year), Grandfather Frost (a Russian winter god), Thor (the Norse god who rides the sky in a chariot drawn by goats), and the Tomte (a Norse spirit known for giving gifts to children at this time of year).
If we look carefully, each practice equates the light coming into the world as a time of sharing and spiritual rebirth. Following are some ideas you may want to integrate as you welcome the return of the sun:
• Let Winter Solstice play a central role in your household by conceptualizing other holiday festivities, including Christmas and New Year's office parties, as part of your Solstice celebration.
• Adorn your home with sacred herbs and colors such as red, green, and white. Place holly, ivy, evergreen boughs, and pine cones around your home, especially where socializing takes place. Hang a sprig of mistletoe above a threshold and leave it there for good luck throughout the year.
• Honor the new year with light. Host a Solstice Eve ritual where you meditate in the darkness and then welcome the sun's rebirth by lighting candles and singing old folk songs or carols. If you have an indoor fireplace or an outdoor fire circle, burn a hardwood log, like oak or cottonwood, as a Yule log and save a bit to start next year's fire. Decorate your home with strings of electric lights.
• Contribute to the manifestation of wellness on Earth. Donate food and clothing to the 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. Meditate on world peace and a healthier planet in the coming year.
No matter how you celebrate, may the spirit of Solstice warm your heart and your home.