This past weekend I went to a Winter Solstice Celebration that included drumming, dancing, meditation, and setting our intent for the year to come. Each attendee was instructed to bring a sweet or savory snack for sharing; something symbolic of the season for placing around the yule log; and a journal for taking notes. The yule log was in the center of a large green cloth; and the log itself was decorated with raffia and greenery and had three tapers in it. The cloth was spread with votive candles and a few natural ornaments and we were asked to place the symbolic things that we were asked to bring. Mostly there were pine boughs, fir and juniper, variegated and green holly, rosemary, assorted pinecones—natural greenery of the season. It was beautiful with the fragrant greens and the sparkling candelight and I am sorry that I did not take my camera. The evening was fun and lively and the room smelled of a combination of fresh greenery, frankincense and hot mulled apple cider.
Tomorrow, Tuesday, December 21 is the winter solstice. It is not just the solstice—there is a full cold moon at 3:13 a.m. EST—and we will also experience a total lunar eclipse in the wee hours after midnight tonight (actually on December 21) from about 1:30 a.m. to 4:30 a.m EST. Geoff Chester of the U.S. Naval Observatory, who inspected a list of eclipses going back 2000 years, reports: “Since Year 1, I can only find one previous instance of an eclipse matching the same calendar date as the solstice, and that is 1638 December 21,” says Chester. “Fortunately we won’t have to wait 372 years for the next one…that will be on 2094 December 21.” https://science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/
Late on December 21st or early on the 22nd, depending upon where you live on this earth, begins the celebration of the Winter Solstice. This is the shortest day of the year and the longest night.From this day until the first of January is a time for reflection and repose, as well as celebration. Although the Winter Solstice marks Midwinter, from now on the days become longer, barely noticeable at first, until we reach the Summer Solstice on June 21st, when we experience the opposite, the longest day and shortest night of the year.
Literally translated from Latin, solstice means “sun stands still.” During this longest night and shortest day, the sun is farthest from the Northern Hemisphere. Throughout history, people have recognized this day on the calendar as a turning point, when the sun reemerges and each day becomes a little longer. The Winter Solstice is considered the birthday of the unconquered sun and the moment of new beginnings.
Ancient rituals of the solstice were festive affairs. Often they were celebrated with days of feasting, colorful costumes, music and dancing. Huge bonfires were built and burned, believing it would encourage the invisible sun to return to warm the cold earth. It is difficult for us to fathom the true depths of winter as our ancestors did, they constantly felt the need to preserve light and to ensure the return of the sun. Nowadays, we light our homes both inside and out, sometimes simply with a candle in the window or a fire in the hearth or decoratively with strings of colored lights. However, the symbol of light is still the same as it has been since ancient times. During the darkest and coldest days when we spend more times indoors, we beckon the light, hoping it will renew our spirits.
Following the traditions of the ancients, we too bring the spirit of the outdoors inside during this time of year. Romans decorated for their Saturnalia with laurel and evergreens, which were a symbol of renewed fertility. Mistletoe, which was ritually harvested by the Druids, was a symbol of fertility and was reputed to contain medicinal as well as magical properties; it was given as a gift for good luck and friendship. Evergreens symbolizing earth’s renewal and the Tree of Life, decorated with light from the sun, moon, and stars were the precursors of today’s Christmas or Yule trees trimmed with ornaments and lights.
The Yule log is among the oldest traditions, a reminder of the importance of fire in the darkness of midwinter. It was usually lighted on Solstice eve from the remnants of last year’s wood; it was very important to pass the flame from one year into the next. Beliefs vary widely about what type of wood the log should be, if it burns for twelve hours it will bring good luck, if you keep it going until the new year the harvests for the next year will be bounteous, and many more. If you don’t have a fireplace or space for a bonfire, you can still choose a log to decorate or just have a simple ceremony of lighting a long-burning candle.
Whatever your seasonal traditions might be—here’s wishing you a jolly holiday–and a happy, healthy and herbal new year! We gardeners look forward to longer days, the warming and the brightening, and a new growing season. Meanwhile enjoy the quiet time and turning inward; celebrate this season.