Winter Solstice Celebrations

Change is neither inherently good nor bad; it simply is the way universe moves. While it’s true that good or bad are relative depending on our perspective, this year has been filled with changes that felt mostly bad.  And because of this I felt it appropriate as we come to the end of the year to celebrate the Winter Solstice as a symbol of transition in the hope that the New Year will bring positive changes.

The Winter Solstice is an important transition in the solar year; the longest night and the shortest day in the Northern hemisphere, the first day of winter.  As I sat by a bonfire started at sunrise on the day of the winter solstice I listened to the sounds of the birds stirring awake in the woods overlaid by the distant hum of the interstate highway that runs a few miles from my home.  It is hard to ignore modern life even when we search for ancient meaning!  I had been looking at images of Stonehenge and wondering about the people who built it.  They must have found meaning in watching the night sky, noting the passage of celestial bodies, and observing the seasons change.

Even today people still celebrate the time of winter solstice, calling upon the names of ancient Gods and Goddesses, performing rituals whose meanings have blurred with time.  I find it difficult to fully appreciate the meaning of such rituals.  What does the darkest day of the year mean when we live in light at the touch of a switch?  What does the turning of the solar seasons signify when northern stores are filled with summer food imported from the southern hemisphere?  Science has explained the rotation of the planets, the movement of distant galaxies, and we satisfy our wonderment through a Google search rather than candle light vigils imploring the vast night sky to hear our prayers.

This year I wanted to learn more about the winter solstice so I ordered several books conveniently available on Amazon and delivered right to my door.  One writer described the Northern Winter Solstice as the celebration of the sun at its minimum because our ancestors believed it necessary to pray for the Sun to return and bless the world with its life giving light.  They danced and sang around large bonfires, hoping their actions would be seen by the heavens and bring another season of planting and harvesting.

The Saxon’s winter solstice celebration was called Mōdraniht or Mothers’ Night; a celebration of birth and renewal.  The longest night and shortest day marked a time of ending and a time of beginning, an opportunity to pray to the Gods and ask for better things to come in the New Year.

Germanic people celebrated Yule in December with gatherings that often involved a meal and giving of gifts, garlands of evergreen boughs and mistletoe were brought into the house.  Certain plants such as mistletoe were believed to dispel evil spirits, and many herbs they spread on the floor did kill vermin and pests that made the long winter unpleasant.  Evergreen boughs were believed to bring good luck.

Roman families celebrated Saturnalia around December 25th, with feasting, goodwill, generosity to the poor, the exchange of gifts and the decoration of trees.  In Roman mythology, Saturn was the god of seeds and sowing, an agricultural deity who was said to have reigned over the world in the Golden Age, when humans enjoyed the spontaneous bounty of the earth without labor in a state of innocence.  This reminded me of the Jewish story of the Garden of Eden.  The celebration of Saturnalia continued into the 3rd and 4th centuries AD even as the Roman Empire slowly came apart.  As the Roman Empire came under Christian rule many of its customs were recast with new names and purpose.  Although historians believe Jesus was born in springtime, Christians celebrated Christ’s Mass or Christmas in December perhaps to displace Saturnalia.

As I think about my own families Christmas celebrations I see familiar traditions cast in a new light.  Unknowingly we followed customs and traditions that went far back in human history.  When I was a child we celebrated Christmas by decorating a tree and exchanging gifts.  There were community celebrations with bonfires, sleigh rides, and a Christmas parade.  My mother prepared a feast that included lutefisk and lefsa, traditional Scandinavian foods.  My family has many singers and we would gather around the piano and sing Christmas songs.  My grandmother said it didn’t feel like Christmas until she heard us singing.

We always had a large fire in the fireplace.  For many years, when we were young, my father dressed up as Santa Claus and handed out presents to wide eyed somewhat frightened children!  Later it began to concern me that the fire in the fireplace would prevent Santa access down the chimney.  So my father started making foot prints in the snow on the porch telling us it was Santa Claus who made them!  After feasting and opening presents on Christmas Eve my family went to church where we celebrated communion, sang more songs, and held a candle light vigil.  Christmas was filled with lights, boughs of evergreen, traditional food, gifts, and bonfires…all reminiscent of ancient symbols signifying sunlight, fires and candles to dispel the darkness, birth and renewal, hope, charity and faith.

Although my own Christmas festivities aren’t as elaborate as my parent’s, I still love to celebrate this holiday.  I must admit it bothers me to see stores putting up Christmas displays earlier every year.  Now I see them even before Halloween!  I feel this emphasis on shopping for Christmas takes away from the spirit of Christmas, making it about consumption rather than faith, hope and charity.

I love feeling Christmas spirit take hold as we move past Thanksgiving and the end of the year approaches!  I feel it every time I put money in the red bucket and wish the bell ringers a “Merry Christmas”.  I feel it when I hang evergreen garlands around doors and light candles on the fireplace mantle, when I turn on the Christmas lights and play Christmas music, when the house is filled with the smells of good things baking, and when my husband and I spend Christmas Eve laughing, drinking wine, and wrapping presents.  And this morning I felt grateful when I opened the window blinds and was greeted with snow covering the landscape, a white Christmas!  Our warming world has brought fewer and fewer white Christmases to Indiana.  Growing up in Minnesota Christmas just doesn’t feel the same without snow!

So as we come to the end of another year, past the darkest day of the solar year, may we stop for a moment and give thought to the year past; to the families who have lost so much to floods, wildfires, and hurricanes; to the refugees fleeing war, drought, and starvation.  May we hold the dream of world peace in our heart and pray that our leaders work to prevent not start war.  My we find ways to celebrate birth and renewal, love and generosity, thankfulness and appreciation.  May we be blessed with tolerance for our differences and strength to make needed changes in the coming year.


Blessings and good cheer to one and all.

2 Replies to “Winter Solstice Celebrations”

  1. Mele Kalikimaka, Jody!
    There is snow on the high mountains Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea, which is a wonderful sight and as close as we get to a white Christmas here.
    I love that the holiday has so many layers from our pre-history and history and from cultures from around the world., as you point out. Even the shamanists have contributed to the mix: flying reindeer are what the shaman (Santa) ride to and from the spirit realm.

  2. Lovely remembrance Jody. I particularly appreciate the mention of some traditional foods enjoyed at the holidays. When you think about how food had to be preserved long ago – no refrigeration – then something like lye fish would have been a stock item in the winter months.

    Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

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