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From solstice to Christmas, we celebrate peace and renewal
LIT CANDLES, HUGE BONFIRES, singing, dancing, tree decorating, special food and libations, plus offerings and prayers to the gods! These were all part of ancient winter solstice celebrations.
December 21 has the least daylight in the northern hemisphere (the most in the southern hemisphere). And so well before modern civilization and knowledge about how our sun really works in relation to our planet, pagans feared that the light was disappearing—perhaps never to return.
Hence, the need to pray to the gods to bring back the sun’s light, heat, and life-giving properties. It was time to store up the harvest, too—just in case the prayers didn’t work. These solstice rituals connected our early ancestors to each other and to natural cycles.
Early customs and celebrations have merged into current religious beliefs. Putting a positive spin on it, the Romans termed the winter solstice the birth of the unconquered sun. They created Saturnalia, a seven-day festival where grudges and quarrels were forgotten while businesses, courts and schools were closed. Wars were interrupted or postponed and slaves were served by their masters. Peace and good will? That’s laudable.
In Scandinavia, the Feast of Juul was observed in honor of the god Thor. Fires were lit to symbolize the warmth of the returning sun. Ancient Incas honored the sun god with a special festival during winter solstice.
In China, Dongzhi was originally celebrated as an end-of-harvest festival. In Chinese philosophy, Yin symbolizes the feminine and negative qualities of the universe while Yang the masculine and positive. On the day of the Winter Solstice, the Yin is at its peak with the longest night. From then on, it will give way to the light and warmth of Yang. It’s a right time for optimism and joy.
Today, in southern China, Dongzhi is observed with a family reunion over the long night, when pink-and-white glutinous rice balls are eaten in sweet broth to symbolize family unity and prosperity. In northern China, people are more likely to eat dumplings shaped like ears (to prevent frostbite). Families gather at their ancestral temples to worship. There is always a grand reunion dinner following the sacrificial ceremony.
Native American Iroquois took a different approach. For them, the winter solstice was a time of dreaming. With Mother Night reigning supreme, they went to bed early to walk between the worlds of light and darkness, gathering meaning from The Great Mystery. In the morning they would share what visions they had.
Today, we don’t really believe daylight won’t return again, even though we have incorporated early customs into our own religious beliefs. They all derive from the scientific fact that seasons change due to the tilt of the Earth as it spins on its axis and rotates around the sun.
It seems to me that all the religious celebrations around this time of year are really about hope for future well-being. For pagans, it was originally hope that the increasingly dark days and frigid weather would go away. For Christians now, it’s about hope evident in a special newborn child with the promise of redemption.
For those of Jewish faith, hope is inherent in the story told about lighting a menorah that burned miraculously for eight days. Buddhists observe Rohatsu to appreciate and seek enlightenment. For young children, it’s the hope that Santa will visit, leaving wonderful gifts behind.
And somewhere, under all the religious rituals of this and past seasons, there is hope to sustain the harmonious connections that bind us to Earth-based living.
In this season, burn a Yule log, sing a carol, light a tree, party, give and receive gifts, eat a rice ball, dream big, attend a worship service, and love one another. Good Winter Solstice to you and yours.
Sandra Kurtz has been a teacher, the executive director of a nature center, an educational specialist for an energy museum, an environmental community activist, and a board member of several environmental organizations. Visit her website at enviroedu.net