The Winter Solstice Is Here Again

Eva Stalsjo christmas card

Once again we have reached the shortest day of the year.  And once again, we perform our rituals to ward off the darkness and hope for the return of the sun.  We no longer doubt the return of the sun, but we still long for it.

I have found no better description of the traditions of the Winter Solstice than the following passage from The Book Of Christmas, by Brendan Lehane, from 1986.

So when you decorate your tree, give presents, hang greenery and feast this season, know that it is rooted deep in the past.

The word “solstice” means only “sun stand still.”  The winter solstice is the point in the yearly course of the earth around the sun when, because of the angle of the earth’s axis, the Northern Hemisphere is tilted farthest away from the sun’s face.   The path that the sun takes across the sky as it travels from horizon to horizon is low.  What weak rays reach the earth during that season fall obliquely, offering little light and little warmth.  The day of the winter solstice is the shortest of the entire year, and the night the cruelest and the longest.

Most people knew the sun as a god, the provider of light and warmth and life.  In late December, the god offered only a brief daily showing, the forced smile of an invalid ancient on his deathbed.  Yet in the days that followed, the god fought back against the encroaching darkness, slowly winning through to the midsummer months, when the sun’s golden brightness blazed high in the heavens.

People did not take the sun’s victory for granted.  Men and women then felt themselves and their actions intrinsic to the universe:  They had a role to play.  They believed that sun and light were truly endangered at the solstice.  The earth trembled under the footsteps of the dead, and unless the living offered prayers and performed ceremonies, death would triumph.  There would be no return of summer, no blossoming again of fruits and flowers, no rippling of grains in the fields, no gamboling of infant animals in the pastures.

Far from Bethlehem, far from the ordered rule of the Roman Empire, in the night-black, icy north – the land of Celt, Geat, Lapp, Finn, Dane and Hun – rituals to ensure the rebirth of the sun were faithfully enacted in massive timbered halls and around fires blazing amid the endless tracts of snow.  People masked with horses’ head, with stags’ antlers, with deerskins, with hides of goats, danced in the firelight.  They adorned their houses and themselves with holly and ivy and mistletoe and evergreen – all of the plants that withstood the death of winter and so were charged with enchanting power.  They held heroic carousals.  They sacrificed to the dead and to the gods of darkness:  For the sake of the sun and the earth’s fertility, animals died, and sometimes men and women.

The threat was not merely the loss of life-giving light, although that was bad enough. The dark, these people were certain, was crowded with the creatures of evil.  Ghosts haunted the gloom, werewolves prowled, witches, demons, goblins and imps lurked in the nocturn, creating mischief; packs of supernatural dogs massed on the moorlands; malevolent spirits hovered near houses, seeking entrance.  So men and women devised ways of cheating them.  They changed protective spells, posted magic symbols on doors and clothes.  And they avoided the dark by making fires.

Fire was at the center of all the winter festivals.  It was the brother of the sun, calling out to the heavens.  Great bonfires blazed on the hills of Ireland and Scotland, on the mountains of France and Germany and in the halls of the Norse kings.  Throughout the countries lapped by the Mediterranean and ruled by Rome, fire burned in the form of candles as the Romans held their winter feast.  Originally this feast was called Brumalia; later it became known as the Saturnalia.  The festivities were dedicated to the Titan Saturn, lord of the harvest, long trapped by his son Jupiter beneath the earth;  perhaps because the imprisoned Titans were deemed to view the world upside down, the Saturnalia was a feast of reversals;  Masters served slaves and slaves commanded masters.   This was a time of banqueting, of carrying green boughs that signified the strength of life, of bestowing presents.  Men and women faced the darkness with a kind of madcap glee, fending it off with their high spirits.

The dates and natures of winter ceremonies and celebrations varied from race to race.  Among some peoples, early November was the time for the most concentrated rituals.  This was so with the Celts, whose winter began at Samain, November 1.  Norsemen originally celebrated Yule – their winter rite – in November, when darkness began to enfold their land.  Other festivals were spread throughout the following two months.  The Roman Saturnalia occupied the week that ended on the 24th of December.  The followers of the Persian god Mithra – the cave-born god of light who drove away the darkness – deemed that his birthday was December 25.  And many other days in December were the occasions for winter ceremonies.  Yet all of them were intimately concerned with the great natural crisis that reached its acme on the day of the sun’s shortest and feeblest appearance.

All of these rites were gathered at last under the mantle of the Christian celebration , and while the origins were forgotten, traces of the old ceremonies remained.  These traces were to be found in the devotion to the flames of candles and to the blazing of Yule logs, in mimes and mumming and curious rituals and games that echoed ancient and forgotten sacrifices, in feasting and choice of foods to feast upon, in garlands of holly and ivy and evergreen, in the raising of Christmas trees, in the giving of presents, in the very words of the songs that were sung.  The child who was the Son of God and called the sun of righteousness promised delivery from darkness and the hope of everlasting life.  The placing of his nativity at the heart of winter seemed natural; it made the new belief a link with the old, and helped keep humankind wedded to the seasons.  The attributes of Christmas are those of light and of dark:  It is the time for joy and worship, celebration and good will.  But these are still spiced with a pleasurable tingle of fear, the relic of an ancient apprehension that flowered on the solstice night, when death and darkness stalked the world.

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1 Response to The Winter Solstice Is Here Again

  1. erikw says:

    A Wonderful piecs by Lehane, Thanks again for sharing!

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