“Winter is the time for comfort, for good food and warmth, for the touch of a friendly hand and for a talk beside the fire: it is the time for home.” – Edith Sitwell
Tonight and tomorrow (depending on where you live) is the Winter Solstice (unless you live in the Southern Hemisphere, then it’s the Summer Solstice), traditionally thought to be the longest night and shortest day of the year (though not actually).
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.
“But all this playful artifice had a very serious underside, a brooding quality designed to carry us across the threshold of the winter solstice. These are the dark days, the short days, the cold days in the northern hemisphere. Yet before this festival was finished (another reason, perhaps, for defending the full week’s celebration) the days began to lengthen again. That astronomic fact may be the secret to understanding the symbolics of the thing in any case.” – Louis A. Ruprecht, Religion Dispatches
“[Alison] Skelton, 52, is daughter of the late University of Victoria poet Robin Skelton, who identified as a witch in his later years. From her father, Skelton, a psychic and painter, learned of the power of being transformed by the “spell-like qualities” of both art and Earth-based paganism. Skelton maintains pagans were originators of common Christmas customs involving star-topped evergreen trees (with the lights signifying “spirit”) and seasonal gift-giving (“to redistribute wealth”). “Pagan traditions are focused on the sacredness of nature. At Yule we want to encourage the light to return” from out of the creative darkness, says Skelton.” – Doug Todd, The Vancouver Sun
“For millennia winter has been a time for festivals and meaningful celebrations, so “happy holidays” encompasses multiple traditions. This year I was invited to join in a different holiday tradition – the yule log in celebration of winter solstice, when the sun slowly lengthens its daily presence. After an offering was given for its gift, this locally harvested log had little holes drilled in it to receive slips of paper with the participants’ hopes for the coming year. Once filled, the log is burned and voices lift in song. My invitation came from a kind-eyed Wicca priestess with a warm home and lovely holiday tree topped with a pointy hat, although Yule isn’t restricted to Wiccan tradition.” - Sholeh Patrick, Coeur d’Alene Press
“From Europe to Asia, this ebbing and timid returning of the light is celebrated and longed for. In Scandinavian and Germanic countries around this time they celebrate Saint Lucia, bedecking a chosen girl in white robes with a blood-red sash and sending her around to work healing miracles. Belgium is home to the Koleduvane festival, which celebrates the birth of the sun. And Poland has the festival of Gody, during which people forgive one another and share food.” – Indian Country Today Media Network
“The winter solstice gives us the opportunity to connect to our past and the earth. We should welcome both. Our past includes our pagan ancestors who deified the earth and its elements, its seasons, its natural forces. They understood the earth and belonged to it in a way that modern humankind has largely forgotten.” – Will Moredock, Charleston City Paper
In addition to these written odes to the season, I also encourage to listen to a special seasonal song written and performed by T. Thorn Coyle, available for download at Bandcamp (on a somewhat lighter note, Celtic folk-rock band Emerald Rose’s seasonal ditty “Santa Claus Is Pagan Too” is now available as a free MP3 download). No matter what your religion or tradition, may this year’s winter celebrations and observances bring you peace and joy!