December 21, 2009 at 17:47 UTC (9:47AM PST) marks the Winter Solstice. We arrive at what in northern latitudes is the shortest day of the year, a time that has been celebrated and observed by many cultures, as far back as 10,000 years ago. The word itself comes from Latin sol meaning sun and sistere, to stand still, giving us what translates as “sun standing still.” For an instant in time the sun seems to stop and then begins reversing the process of long nights and short days, leading us back to the long days when the sun hardly seems to set at night, and in northern Scandinavia it doesn’t. But for now, we are savoring the longest night of the year, in preparation for the coming spring and the rebirth of the sun.
Scientifically speaking, the earth is closer to the sun by about 3 million miles now than in the the Northern Hemisphere summer. However, due to the tilt of the axis the Northern hemisphere is tilted away from the sun, and the Southern hemisphere is tilted towards it. While we in the North are in the grips of winter, our planet-mates in the south are enjoying Midsummer.
Our ancestors built monuments and observatories that would align with the light on this day, the most famous of these being Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain in England which is aligned to the setting sun of the winter solstice. There are many others: Newgrange in Ireland, which admits the light of midwinter sunrise, is approximately 5,000 years old making it older than both Stonehenge and the Egyptian pyramids; In North America, the ancient Anasazi built the Chaco Canyon Sun Dagger which was designed to not only mark the solstices, but the equinoxes as well.
The Romans celebrated Deus Sol Invictus (or Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, the “birth of the undefeated sun god”) on December 25. The ancient Norse burned Jul (Yule) logs in honor of Thor, the god of thunder. In days past these would be entire tree trunks, which could burn for a day to a week. Today, modern pagans of many traditions – Norse, Wiccan, Druid, etc., have reinvented the religions of their ancestors and celebrate with song and magic, feasting and merrymaking. For some of them it marks their New Year. We decorate our homes with holly, ivy, mistletoe and evergreens, all symbols of eternal life. Holly is also used to deflect negativity, and mistletoe, growing in trees between heaven and earth, was sacred to the Druids. It was cut on the sixth day past the full moon closest to Yule-time. This year that means the new Celtic year, with the first month of Beth (birch) in the Celtic tree calendar begins December 21/22. For Wiccans, Yule is a sun festival, and a lesser sabbat. While there is a great deal of mixing of mythology and traditions among the neo-pagans, most groups view this as the rebirth of the sun god. One of the more popular myths is that of the Oak King and the Holly King, who battle for supremacy throughout the year, with the Oak King at his strongest in the summer, and the Holly King defeating him and ruling for the winter. Candlegrove has a very nice page on the origins of solstice traditions from around the world, and there’s a lovely Wiccan Solstice ritual at Deaf Pagan Crossroads.
Happy Solstice, and Blessed Be!