“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
Today (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.
“The nights grow long but the the Winter sun – sharp angles – is still bright upon our faces. Do not forget this. We all walk into the labyrinth of darkness. We all return, born anew, in light. This happens moment to moment. Sometimes year by year. The Divine Twins stalk us, live within our skin, caress our minds, open our hearts. We are the dance of night and day, of frost and sunlight. We are the priestess, mediating every cusp and each turn. Do not forget this. The nights grow long and the Cosmos holds you in her arms. We are all the pregnancy of Night. We are all the possibility of Day. Do not forget this.” – T. Thorn Coyle
“Darkness comes early as Solstice draws near. Lights are lit in windows, on trees, inside houses and along streets. We seek their comfort and warmth during these short days and long nights. The last month of the calendar is here and we eagerly anticipate the rebirth of a new annual cycle. We make merry during this time and yet, there is also an opportunity to acknowledge and honor the darkness: the darkness outside and the darkness within. Love, bliss and joy. Fear, anger and rage. All of these are part of being human. Positive and negative make a whole. Without our darkness, we are incomplete. “I must also have a dark side if I am to be whole,” Carl Jung wrote.” – Lisa Levart, The Huffington Post
“We should all pause in appreciation of the sun’s warmth and spark of life each Solstice. Our ancient ancestors recognized this and lit bonfires to light a path and show the sun the way back north. Our next growing season and food stock depended on the return of our sun, just as our neighbors in the Southern Hemisphere depend on it bending their way. Their Winter Solstice is our Summer Solstice and vice-versa. This ancient dance of yin and yang between the Northern and Southern Hemisphere has been going on since time began. It’s a dance we can’t afford to have stopped. Old stonehenges in England and Salem, New Hampshire, among others sprinkled throughout the globe, track the celestial dance. On these sites ceremonies were held and rituals were preformed to ensure our sun stayed on track.” – Joan Rusek, Cleveland Plain Dealer
“Through the ages, the fabled festival in honor of Saturnus had acquired various customs and traditions, many of which were adopted by the early Christians and persist to the current day. Our customary use in December of red and green, representing perennial foliage and berries, dates back to the Roman Saturnalia. During the festival, the Romans decorated their homes with evergreen wreaths, called serta, bearing red berries. The exchange of gifts, the singing of songs, and the dedication of specific foods at meals, all characterized the holidays. According to Macrobius, the celebration of the Saturnalia was extended with the Sigallaria, so named for the small earthenware figurines which were sold in Roman shops and given as gifts to children. The Temple of Saturnus, thought by many to be the oldest Roman temple recorded by the pontiffs, had been dedicated on the Saturnalia. After sacrifice in the Temple of Saturnus, the celebrants would enjoy a public banquet, then go out to the streets shouting the holiday greeting “IO Saturnalia!” for all to hear. The Saturnalia was an occasion for celebration, visits to friends, and the presentation of gifts, particularly cerei, wax candles, and sigillaria, clay dolls.” – Mary Brown, Mainline Media News
“Icelandic children get to enjoy the favors on not one but 13 Father Christmases. Called the Yule Lads, these merry but mischievous fellows take turns visiting kids on the 13 nights leading up to Christmas. On each of those nights, children place one of their shoes on the windowsill. For good boys and girls, the Yule Lad will leave candy. If not, the Yule Lads are not subtle in expressing their disapproval: they fill the shoe with rotting potatoes. Don’t think well-behaved Icelandic kids have a sweet deal all around, however. They may enjoy 13 Santa Claus-like visits, but they also have to contend with a creature called Grýla who comes down from the mountains on Christmas and boils naughty children alive, and a giant, blood-thirsty black kitty called the Christmas Cat that prowls around the country on Christmas Eve and eats anyone who’s not wearing at least one new piece of clothing.” - Rachel Nuwer, Smithsonian Magazine.
“Winter Solstice is a perfect excuse to wind down for the year. It is happily emphasized since I am on Winter Break for school– hibernating more and going out less. For the last seven years and counting, I have held some sort of Winter Solstice gathering for friends and sometimes family. I have hosted sit-down traditional dinners and the more informal drinks and appetizers only fiesta. We have mulled spiced-wine together, played an old parlor game entitled, “The Minister’s Cat,” and lit candles. One of my favorite theme ideas was putting a spotlight on the sun: I served spicy Indian food for snacks and the soundtrack featured all songs mentioning the sun. There are a seemingly endless supply of these to choose from.” - Colleen DuVall, Witches & Pagans Magazine
“Though officially one of the “lesser sabbats,” Yule rituals have always had a special hold on me. There’s something special about the rebirth of the Lord of the Sun, and to see pagan imagery nearly every where you go this time of year makes it even more so. Of course I enjoy my ritual take on Yule, and I’ve been recycling bits and pieces of that ritual for over ten years now. I don’t write solitary ritual well, but many others do. I enjoyedthis solitary Yule Ritual over on Pagan by Design. I used to shy away from the Oak King/Holly King mythos at Yule, but lately I’ve been finding myself more drawn to it. Enacting an epic battle during ritual presents a whole series of challenges but when it works it’s pretty awesome. Yule was originally (and still is) a Norse holiday, and ADF has a whole page of Norse Yule Rituals worth perusing.” – Jason Mankey, Patheos Pagan Channel
No matter what your religion or tradition, may this year’s winter celebrations and observances bring you peace and joy!