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Winter Solstice 2017
Karis Burkowski, December 17, 2017 – Solstice Traditions
THE LEGEND OF THE CHRISTMAS TREE ANGEL
It was late December, not yet Christmas Eve, but getting close. Things were not going well at the North Pole.
Santa was getting ready for his annual trip but there were problems everywhere.
Four of his elves were sick, and the trainee elves were not as efficient, so Santa beginning to feel the pressure of being behind schedule. Santa helping out in the workshop paint booth and the fumes had made him feel nauseous, on top of being rushed AND flustered.
When the shift ended, he stopped by the barn to check on the reindeer. They had been fighting all day, and not letting Rudolph play in any reindeer games. Rudolph was crying in the corner and told Santa that the stress he was under was making him too emotionally devastated to fly and he was going to stay home this year. Santa dealt with the other reindeer and settled things down for the night, but he knew this would take more than one lecture to straighten out. STUPID REINDEER!
He went into the house, looking forward to supper, and immediately smelled something burning. Mrs. Claus was on her computer, Skyping with her sister in Montreal, and supper was ruined. MORE STRESS! He pulled out the roast and in so-doing he burned his hand on the oven door. When he stuck his hand under the cold water tap, the water hit a spoon in the sink and splashed all over his face and beard.
He dried his face and decided to have a coffee, with a shot of brandy. The brandy bottle was empty because the last of it had been used for fruitcake. In his frustration, he dropped the coffee pot, which shattered all over the kitchen floor. Santa rarely swore, but he let out a STRING OF ‘GROWNUP WORDS’.
Just then, ding-dong, the doorbell rang. Santa cussed and stomped his way to the door. He threw open the door and there was a little angel with a great big Christmas tree.
The angel said, very cheerfully, “Merry Christmas Santa. Hasn’t it been a wonderful day? I have a beautiful tree for you. Isn’t it just a lovely tree? Where would you like me to put it?”
And that, dear friends, began the tradition of the little angel on top of the tree….
So now you know the story behind one of our Solstice traditions.
Let’s talk about some of the others.
Solstice is the day of Earth’s maximal tilt (when the axis is directed most fully away from the sun), giving us in the Northern Hemisphere the longest night of the year.
The term ‘solstice’ means ‘sun stands still’, in the sense that it rises to the same height in the sky at noon. We know that this changes slightly every day; the sun does not ‘stand still’. However, just because we know that this is so does not mean that we can see that it is.
For our ancient ancestors, the sun did appear to stand still at the time of the solstice. Christmas happens on the 25th of December, three days after the solstice, because by then the slow recovery of the sun could be observed.
This event is observed worldwide. We know quite a bit about Solstice celebrations in the West, but we may not be as aware of celebrations in other parts of the world.
In China the precise time of the Solstice had been determined using a sundial and has been celebrated as a festival since the Han Dynasty, around 200 BCE. Their Solstice event, which includes clan gatherings and hot dumpling soup, is called Dōngzhì or “Extreme of Winter”. It celebrates the turning point at which darkness and light, yin and yang begin to come back into balance.
Discovering the exact date of the winter solstice came to be of enormous importance to the ancients, and they constructed elaborate devices for solar observation.
These devices allow a thin shaft of the rising sun’s first light to pass between two uprights or through an aperture, onto a wall or a circle of stones. As the year comes to an end, this light will progress in one direction; then, as the sun begins to recover, it will go the other way.
Megalithic structures designed to establish the exact moment of the solstice are found all over northwest Europe. Newgrange, in Ireland, is one such monument. (Has anyone been there? Can you describe it?) Inside a circle of stones is a megalithic building, built about 5,000 years ago. The entrance is a long narrow corridor which is aligned exactly so that at sunrise on the days of the winter solstice, a shaft of light penetrates into the very heart of the temple and signals the moment at which the new year begins.
Ancient Egypt’s sprawling temple of Karnak, at Luxor, was constructed in alignment with the winter solstice more than 4,000 years ago, to focus light on a shrine to the sun god. Similar alignments can be seen from Angkor Wat in Cambodia to Machu Picchu in Peru. Since the Egyptians wrote things down on materials that survived the ravages of time, theirs seem to be the earliest recorded Solstice celebrations.
All over the world, complex religious traditions evolved to explain the apparent death and rebirth of the sun.
One set of early Northern-European pagan traditions goes like this:
The Goddess (who represents the Earth, the source of all Life) gives birth to a son at Yule. For the rest of the winter, The Goddess rests.
By Imbolc, (February 2nd), the God is an energetic young boy and his power, the renewing power of the Sun, begins to be felt. Snow starts to melt and the first green plants poke through.
By the Spring Equinox (around March 21st), sometimes called Eostra’s Day or Ostara’s Day – hence the word Easter), the God has grown to be a young man. Now hours of light and dark are equal, and the Goddess and God impel the wild creatures to reproduce. Symbols of fertility and fecundity, like eggs and rabbits are part of the festivals.
Beltane, or May Day (May 1st) marks the emergence of the young God into full manhood. Stirred by the energies at work in nature, the Goddess and the God lie among the grasses and flowers, and The Goddess becomes pregnant. The phallic Maypole rituals symbolize this union.
By the Summer Solstice (around June 21), the Earth is lush and full of life, and bonfires burn late into the shortest night of the year. Leaping the bonfires ensured fertility, purification, health and love. Midsummer Night was a classic time for magic of all kinds.
Lammas, aka Lughnassa (August 1st), marks the first harvest, the grain harvest, and the abundance of the earth is celebrated with harvest festivals.
The second harvest, or grape harvest – with its grape and wine festivals, occurs at the Autumn Equinox (around September 21st). The days and nights are again equal. The God begins to lose his strength as the days shorten.
Samhain (October 31), was the final harvest, the time when animals were slaughtered to ensure food throughout the depths of winter and Death was acknowledged as part of Life. The God dies as well, a willing sacrifice to ensure our continuing existence, and to remain within the cycle of the natural world.
And then, it is Yule once again, and the cycle begins again, the Sun God is reborn, Life goes on.
As other religions evolved, their special deities were also given birthdays at Yule.
- The Egyptian god Horus whose symbol was the winged Sun, and the god of the horizon, Aker.
- Mithras, the Unconquered Sun of Persia,
- The Roman Sol Invictus.
- Nimrod of Ancient Babylon.
- Also the Celtic Cerrunos, the horned god, and Lugh the Sun god.
- The bright, shining Apollo; and the lusty Dionysus of the Greeks.
- Mary bore the infant Jesus,
- Saturn (the Father of Time).
- Also in this list are: Osirus, Hercules, Bacchus, Jupiter, Tammuz.
- Qetzalcoatl (Mayan) and Lucina (“Little Light”) (Scandinavian) also celebrate at this time.
- In Australia, where the winter solstice falls in June, Nurelli gets that birthday honour.
I’m not sure all the sources for this list are 100% verifiable, but most of them can be found in multiple online lists of deities born at the time of the Solstice – along with many more.
Because evergreens stay green all winter, they symbolize the promise of ongoing, ever-renewing life. It was common practice all over Northern Europe to bring evergreen boughs indoors at Solstice, thus bringing that ever-renewing spirit into the dwelling place. (Besides, people were cooped up a lot in the cold winter, and evergreens smell nice.)
In Scandinavia and Germany, the celebrations were particularly enthusiastic. Even after Christianity arrived, they would noisily “Blow in the Yule” by sending musicians up the church belfry to play 4 carols, one in each direction and then ring the bells to announce the arrival of the returning sun and call the village to celebrate.
Yule trees would be decorated with fruits, nuts and berries in an act of Pagan symbolic magick that ensured the fruitful continuity of the seasons. You all know how that works – like making a wish on your birthday, or taping a picture of a Maserati to the corner of your computer screen. While other cultures decorated outdoor trees (which provided Yule treats for the wildlife), the Germans and Scandinavians also brought whole trees indoors.
Although we do not know for sure how long the tradition existed in Germany and northern Europe, it became popular in England and North America in the 1840s. In 1841, Prince Albert (Queen Victoria’s German husband) had a Christmas Tree set up in Windsor Castle. In 1848, a drawing of “The Queen’s Christmas tree at Windsor Castle” was published in the Illustrated London News. The drawing was republished in Godey’s Lady’s Book, Philadelphia, in December 1850 (but they removed the Queen’s crown and Prince Albert’s moustache to make it look ‘American’!).
The publication of the drawing helped Christmas Trees become popular in the UK and USA (and of course Canada too). If you want your Yule tree to be more traditional, use decorations that look like fruits and nuts and berries.
The holly and the mistletoe, with their red and white berries remind us of the Goddess and the God. The red holly berries represent the life-giving moon blood of the Goddess. The white berries of the mistletoe represent the potency of the God. Remember, all of these symbols started out as ways to ensure the continuance of life in the following year. Kissing under the mistletoe was designed to kick off the necessary reproductive processes.
All of these life-renewing festivities worked, and continue to work to this day. Did you know that, even now, the most common birth month is September?
What is the Yule Log all about?
The Yule log was brought in from the sacred (oak) grove, to burn through the night for this special festival. The celebrations of the return of the light lasted all night long, until dawn, and the huge Yule log was meant to burn all night.
Nowadays, we put up Christmas lights as part of the magickal/symbolic use of light to bring back and celebrate the returning light of the sun, with its promise of summer.
Long ago the New Year always coincided with the Solstice. After all, that’s when the sun came back and the cycle started again. Why and when did we begin to celebrate the New Year on January 1?
The New Year was first celebrated on January 1 in 45 BC when Julius Caesar reformed the calendar, doing away with the lunar cycle and following the solar year as did the Egyptians. His Julian calendar calculations were a little off, however, and his small error of 11 minutes per year had added ten days to the year by the mid-15th century. In the 1570s Pope Gregory XIII revised it again, and the Gregorian calendar was implemented and we have followed it ever since.
In the list of deities born at the Solstice, we mentioned Saturn. The Romans had a huge party to celebrate his birth each year.
After the obligatory ritual sacrifice to kick things off, there was a public banquet. This was followed by partying that lasted from December 17 – 23. There was a carnival atmosphere that overturned social norms, with masters providing table service for their slaves and even gambling was permitted. There was a special day, The Sigillaria, for gift-giving (but that could last the whole time, especially for children). In a practice that might be compared to modern Christmas cards, verses of poetry often accompanied the gifts.
These celebrations spread throughout the Roman Empire. Why not? It was fun. Saturnalia continued to be celebrated long after it was removed from the official calendar.
Although the gift giving and feasting is still part of Christmas, the wild partying aspect seems to have survived more as the Happy New Year part of our celebrations.
As Paul Harvey, the late ABC Radio broadcaster would say, Now you know ‘The rest of the story’.