photo by Cate Kerr
The Winter Solstice is unique among days of the year — the time of the longest night and the shortest day. The dark triumphs but only briefly. For the Solstice is also a turning point. From now on (until the Summer Solstice, at any rate), the nights grow shorter and the days grow longer, the dark wanes and the Sun waxes in power. From the dark womb of the night, the light is born.
Many of the customs associated with the Winter Solstice (and therefore with other midwinter festivals such as St Lucy’s Day, Saturnalia, Hanukkah, New Years and Twelfth Night) derive from stories of a mighty battle between the dark and the light, which is won, naturally, by the light. Other traditions record this as the time a savior (the Sun-Child) is born to a virgin mother.
The Battle Between Old and New, Dark and Light
The Romans celebrated from December 17th to December 24th with a festival called Saturnalia, during which all work was put aside in favor of feasting and gambling. The social order was reversed, with masters waiting on their slaves. The Saturnalia is named after Saturn, who is often depicted with a sickle like the figures of Death or Old Father Time. Astrologically speaking, Saturn is saturnine: gloomy, old, dutiful and heavy. He was the god who ate his own children rather than let them surpass him. For new life to flourish, for the sun to rise again, it is necessary to vanquish this gloomy old fellow. Therefore, the feasting and merriment of the midwinter season are religiously mandated in order to combat the forces of gloom.
The day following the Saturnalia, was the Juvenalia, according to Z Budapest in The Grandmother of Time, a holiday in honor of children who were entertained, feasted and given good luck talismans. This makes sense. After vanquishing the Old King, it’s time to celebrate the new in the form of children, the New Year’s Baby, the Son of Man. Naturally this is the time of the year at which the birth of Christ is celebrated, since he is also the New King, the Light of the World who brings light.
The Birth of the Sun
Christ’s birthday was not celebrated on December 25th until the 4th century. Before then, December 25th was best known as the birthday of the Persian hero and sun-god, Mithra. The myth tells that he sprang up full-grown from a rock, armed with a knife and carrying a torch. Shepherds watched his miraculous appearance and hurried to greet him with the first fruits of their flocks and their harvests. The cult of Mithra spread all over the Roman empire. In 274 AD, the Roman emperor Valerian declared December 25th the Birthday of Sol Invictus, the Unconquerable Sun.
Christ was also not the first miraculous child born to a virgin mother. As Marina Warner points out, “the virgin birth of heroes and sages was a widespread formula in the Hellenistic world: Pythagorus, Plato, Alexander were all believed to be born of woman by the power of a holy spirit.”
The union of a virgin and a supernatural force, like the couplings between Zeus and various nymphs, was shorthand indicating the presence of a miraculous child, a child with the powers of both worlds. Dionysus is such a child, born of a union between Zeus and Semele.
Parke in Festivals of the Athenians describes a women-only midwinter festival, the Lenaia, which honored Dionysos. On this night, Greek women “held their ecstatic dances in winter — fully clothed in Greek dress, with castanets or the thyrsus, dancing together with no male companions, human or satyr.” Graves calls it the Lenaea, the Festival of Wild Women (a nice companion for the Festival of Merry Women on Dec 14). He says a bull, representing Dionysus, was cut into nine pieces, with one piece being burned and the rest consumed raw by the worshippers. Dionysus was born in winter, crowned with serpents, became a lion in the spring and was sacrificed as a bull (stag or goat) in the summer because these were calendar emblems of the old tripartite year. Marija Gimbutas in Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe calls Dionysus a Year God. Mithra was also associated with the bull (his initates were baptized with the blood of a sacrificed bull) and shown with the emblems of the zodiac surrounding him, suggesting that he is also a Year God.
The Lenaia occurred on the twelfth day of the Greek lunar month, Gamelion, which falls in early winter. The twelfth day of a lunar month (which begins with the new moon) always falls on a full moon night. If we move this lunar festival to the solar calendar and count from the winter solstice, the festival would occur on January 5th or 6th.
Until the fourth century, Christ’s birthday was celebrated on January 6th, on the same date when the Virgin Kore gave birth to the year god celebrated in Alexandria with a festival called the Koreion. St. Epiphanius complains about the hideous mockery of this rite but it preceded the story of Christ’s birth. In the original ritual, the image of the goddess, decorated with gold stars, was carried seven times around her temple as the priests cried, “The Virgin has brought forth the new Aeon!”
Although Aeon, or Eon, is now defined as “an indefinitely long period of time; an age, eternity,” its Indo-European root aiw conveyed “vital force, life, long life, eternity,” and the Greek form Aionmeant specifically “vital force.” [Farias]
This description recalls the Egyptian ceremony re-enacting the birth of Horus, the sun-god to Isis. All lights in the city were doused while Isis circled the sarcophagus seven times, then brought forth Horus who was called “the Light of the World.” Statues of Isis holding the newly born sun god on her lap, presenting him to the world, are similar to pose to later statues representing Mary and Jesus.
Festivals of Light
The return of the light is the most prominent feature of most midwinter festivals. In Sweden on St. Lucy’s Day, young girls don white dresses and a wreath of candles and awaken their families with cakes and song. Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, is celebrated by lighting candles over a span of eight days. The Christian custom of the Advent wreath, with its four candles, one lit each of the Sundays before Christmas, is another way of re-kindling the light.
The Christmas candle, a large candle of red or some other bright color decorated with holly or other evergreens, was at one time a popular custom throughout Great Britain, Ireland and Scandinavia. One person, usually the eldest or the head of the household, is designated as the lightbringer. She lights the candle for the first time on Christmas Eve before the festive supper and during each of the remaining evenings of the Twelve Days of Christmas. To extinguish the candle, she snuffs it with tongs rather than blowing it out, since that would blow the luck away. The candle sheds a blessing on the household and so is protected from accidental quenching. It seems likely that the candle also represented the coming year, just as the weather of each of the twelve days of Christmas foretell the weather of the corresponding month. It had protective or fertilizing powers and was kept as a charm. In Denmark, during a lightning storm, the remnant would be brought out and lit to protect the household.
Similar customs once surrounded the Yule log. The Yule log must never be bought but should be received as a gift, found or taken from you own property. Often the log to be burned at midwinter was chosen early in the year and set aside.
Tradition varies about the type of wood to be used. Oak logs were popular in the north of England, birch in Scotland and ash in Cornwall and Devon. Ash is the only wood that burns freely when green and the world-tree, Yggdrasil, in the Nordic tradition was an ash-tree. It is important that the Yule log be the biggest and greenest log available since the Christmas festivities will last only as long as the Yule log burns.
In some parts of the Scottish highlands, the head of the household finds a withered stump and carves it into the likeness of an old woman, theCailleach Nollaich or Christmas Old Wife, a sinister being representing the evils of winter and death. She’s the goddess of winter, the hag of night, the old one who brings death. Burning her drives away the winter and protects the occupants of the household from death.
The Yule log is first brought into the house with great ceremony on Christmas Eve (or the eve of solstice, if one prefers). Usually it is decorated with holly and ivy and other evergreens of the season. Some people prefer to use the Yule log as a decoration and place candles on it instead, thus transforming it into a candleabra like the menorah or the kinara. It is lit with a piece of last year’s log as described in Herrick’s poem, “Hesperides:”
Come bring with a noise
My merry, merry boys
The Christmas log to the firing
With the last year’s brand.
Light the new block,
And for good success in his spending
On your psalteries play:
That sweet luck may
Come while the log is a-teendling.
In Italy, the Yule log is called the Ceppo. Boccaccio in the fourteenth century described a Florentine family gathering about the hearth and pouring a libation of wine upon the glowing wood, then sharing the remaining wine, thus linking the Yule log with the custom of wassailing, pouring out libations to the trees in the orchard.
The Yule log is left to burn all night, and, if possible, through the next twelve without going out, although it may be extinguished with water. The ashes are kept for good luck. They have magical properties and can be scattered in the field to fertilize the soil or sprinkled around the house for protection.
The Solstice Evergreen
Another ancient midwinter custom is decorating with greens. The Romans decorated with rosemary, bay, laurel, holly, ivy and mistletoe. The holly and ivy were both important midwinter plants in Great Britain and Ireland, as seen in the mysterious medieval carol which mentions the rivalry between them. Matthews in The Winter Solstice provides the lyrics of a 15th century carol which refers to an ancient battle between the two, with the Ivy representing the cold gloominess of winter and the Holly King, the jolly spirit of the season.
The Christmas tree is of more recent origin. In her book, The Solstice Evergreen, Sheryl Ann Karas says that the earliest record of an evergreen being decorated comes from Riga in Latvia in 1519, when a group of local merchants carried an evergreen bedecked with flowers to the marketplace, where they danced around it and then burned it. Another possible source is the custom in 15th and 16th century Germany of hanging apples on a fir tree as a prop for the miracle play performed on Christmas eve depicting Adam and Eve being driven out of Paradise (see Dec 24).
You should enjoy yourself as much as possible on the Winter Solstice because this will bring back light (and lightness) into the world. Different traditions mention feasting, gambling, playing pranks, giving gifts, visiting, drinking, dressing up, fornicating, putting on plays and staying up all night. During the dark of winter, invoke all the forces of pleasure and love which make life worth living.
Decorating for this festival is easy since you can use all your Christmas decorations. Evergreens and wreaths represent rebirth and the circle of life. Fill your home with candles and Christmas lights. Place them on mirrors, hang up lots of sparkly ornaments and prisms and tinsel so you can create as much light as possible.
Sitting in the Dark
Earlier traditions focused on the battle between the dark and the light, but we know both are valuable. Honor the dark before calling in the light. This is the season when animals hibernate and nature sleeps and we can turn inward too. Perhaps some of the depression people feel during the holidays comes from not providing a space for feeling the sadness associated with this season. Set aside time (hard to do amidst the frenzy of the holidays) for sitting in the dark and quiet. I like to spend the entire day of the Winter Solstice in silence and reflection.
This is a natural time for letting go and saying farewell. Release your resentments and regrets into the darkness, knowing they will be transformed. Write about them in your journal or write them on slips of paper which you can burn in your Yule fire. Use your holiday cards to make amends to people you’ve hurt or neglected.
Welcoming the Light
When you light your candles and your fire, do so with the intention of bringing light into the world. What are the ways in which you can help make the world lighter? How do you bring light into the lives of those around you? Make a conscious effort to increase the amount of light you create. Nancy Brady Cunningham describes a simple yet elegant Winter Solstice ritual in Feeding the Spirit which is appropriate for a large group or a couple, for children and adults, and for people of all religious persuasions. It goes something like this:
Decorate a room with winter greenery. Place a large bowl of water and a candle in the center of the room. Have some gold glitter and scented oil nearby. Give each of the participants a candle (with some kind of holder if you’re worried about drips). Everyone sits in a circle with a lit candle in front of them and talks about their losses, putting out their candle when they’re done speaking. When all are done, the central candle is extinguished and everyone sits in the darkness reflecting on what they have lost. After a long silence, the leader relights the central candle which represents the sun and sprinkles the gold glitter on the water. Everyone lights their candles from the central candle and places them by the water so they can watch the glitter sparkling there. This is a good time to sing a sun song, like “Here Comes the Sun,” or “You Are My Sunshine.” Pass around a glass of wine or juice and toast the sun. The sun-child is the child of promise. Everyone can talk about a promise they see in the future. The leader puts the scented oil in the water and anoints each person with sunshine by dipping her hand into the sparkling, scented water and sprinkling it over each person’s hair.
I do a similar ritual at my Winter Solstice party. When the guests arrive the house is bright with Christmas lights and candles, but at some point during the evening I turn off the lights and blow out the candles and ask the guests to spend a few moments in the darkness and silence reflecting on these qualities of the winter. Then I tell the story of St Lucy and play the traditional Lucy song. As the song is playing, from out of the darkness, faint at first and growing stronger, comes the wavering light of a candle, carried by St Lucy (a role which is coveted by the younger members of the party). She is dressed in white with a crown of candles on her head and her face as she advances through the darkness, ever so intent on the candle she carries before her, is radiant. There is usually a gasp from the assembled guests, so numinous is this figure. St Lucy lights the central candle in the Advent wreath, then I invite the guests to bring their own candles to the flame to light them and make a wish for the New Year. St Lucy disappears into the darkness to reappear again as Shaw or Leah or Amy, and the house is soon full of lights and noise as we talk and listen to carols and feast on the thirteen kinds of Christmas cookies I prepare for this occasion.
Budapest, Z, The Grandmother of Time, Harper and Row, 1989
Cumont, Franz, The Mysteries of Mithra, Dover 1956
Cunningham, Nancy Brady, Feeding the Spirit, Resource Publications 1989
Farias, Helen, “The Magical Ladies of the Thirteen Nights, The Beltane Papers, Issue 2, Samhain 1992
Gimbutas, Marija, The Language of the Goddess, San Francisco: Harper and Row 1989
Gimbutas, Marija, Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe, Thames and Hudson 1982
Karas, Sheryl Ann, The Solstice Evergreen, Aslan 1991
Matthews, John, The Winter Solstice, Quest 1998
Parke, H W, Festivals of the Athenians, Cornell University Press 1977
Walker, Barbara, Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets, Harper and Row 1983
Warner, Marina, Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and Cult of the Virgin Mary, Vintage 1976