“In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy.” – William Blake
Today* is the Winter Solstice (unless you live in the Southern Hemisphere, then it’s the Summer Solstice), the longest night and shortest day of the year. This year a full lunar eclipse will be visible on the solstice in North America.
Sun Halo at Winter Solstice.
This time of year is held sacred by many modern Pagan and Heathen traditions, and has a rich history in ancient pagan religion.
The solstice time was marked as special by pre-historic peoples in both Ireland and England. While there is scant evidence of specific celebrations, it is generally thought that the pagan Celts did mark the solstice time.
Germanic pagans and modern Heathens celebrate Yule at this time. During this holiday the god Freyr was honored. Several traditions we associate with Christmas (eating a ham, hanging holly, mistletoe) come from Yule.
The ancient pagan Romans celebrated Saturnalia which typically ran from December 17th through the 23rd. The festival honored the god Saturn and featured lavish parties and role-reversals. From Saturnalia we can see the traditions of exchanging gifts and decorating evergreen trees indoors that would be adopted as Christmas traditions. Following Saturnalia were the birth celebrations in honor of Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun) and Mithras both held on December 25th.
Many modern Pagans, including Wiccans, Witches, several Druidic traditions, and their many off-shoots hold this time as one of the eight Sabbats/holy days. Usually called Winter Solstice or Yule. It is a time when many of these traditions celebrate the re-birth of the god by the mother goddess.
Here are some quotes on our winter observances.
“Virtually all cultures have their own way of acknowledging this moment. The Welsh word for solstice translates as “the point of roughness,” while the Talmud calls it “Tekufat Tevet,” first day of “the stripping time.” For the Chinese, winter’s beginning is “dongzhi,” when one tradition is making balls of glutinous rice, which symbolize family gathering. In Korea, these balls are mingled with a sweet red bean called pat jook. According to local lore, each winter solstice a ghost comes to haunt villagers. The red bean in the rice balls repels him. In parts of Scandinavia, the locals smear their front doors with butter so that Beiwe, sun goddess of fertility, can lap it up before she continues on her journey. (One wonders who does all the mopping up afterward.) Later, young women don candle-embedded helmets, while families go to bed having placed their shoes all in a row, to ensure peace over the coming year.” – Richard Cohen, The New York Times
“The winter solstice is a pagan tradition that predates Christian beliefs, according to [Kristan] Cannon-Nixon. “It’s basically a New Year’s (celebration) and the Christian Christmas all rolled into one.” She said when Sudbury’s pagan community and others interested in their beliefs gather on Dec. 19 at O’Connor Park, the evening will begin with a potluck dinner. She said feasting together is an ancient tradition. Following the meal, a ritual takes place, where pagans gather in a circle to pay “respect to the gods.” Cannon-Nixon said the ritual allows pagans to give thanks for the good things in their lives.” – Jenny Jelen, Sudbury Northern Life
“The holiday is rooted deeply in the cycle of the year. It is the winter solstice that is being celebrated, seedtime of the year, the longest night and shortest day. It is the birthday of the new Sun King, the Son of God—by whatever name you choose to call him. On this darkest of nights, the Goddess becomes the Great Mother and once again gives birth. And it makes perfect poetic sense that on the longest night of the winter, “the dark night of our souls”, there springs the new spark of hope, the Sacred Fire, the Light of the World, the Coel Coeth.” – Mike Nichols, The Witches’ Sabbats
Light the sky, oh heart, with such bold ray,
That the dark will lose its longing for the day.
Gaze too, upon full moon in earth’s eclipse
And see where self’s long shadow guards the way.
No matter what your religion or tradition, may this year’s winter celebrations and observances bring you peace and joy!