“O Winter! ruler of the inverted year, . . . I crown thee king of intimate delights, Fireside enjoyments, home-born happiness, And all the comforts that the lowly roof Of undisturb’d Retirement, and the hours Of long uninterrupted evening, know.” – William Cowper
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.
“The Christmas and holiday parties you’re attending this month are hardly unique. Humans have been celebrating the darkest time of year with food, alcoholic beverages, and high jinks for thousands of years. Faced with possible starvation during the winter months, primitive man slaughtered cattle during the winter solstice, feasted and drank newly-fermented wine.” – Nancy Rubin Stuart, The Huffington Post
“What is special about this sunset? The solstice marks the sun’s most southerly point on the celestial sphere, the imaginary sphere of stars surrounding Earth, for all of 2012. So this is sun’s southernmost sunset and thus marks a turning of the year, from decreasing daylight to increasing daylight, for us at northerly latitudes.” – Deborah Byrd, EarthSky
Karen Aistars, who owns Mystic Spirit with her husband Davis, said, “For me, it’s the promise of returning light. The days will get longer and warmer, and even though you have to struggle it out through darkness and cold, there is the promise of rebirth and the sun.” – Gwen Orel, The Montclair Times
“The exchange of gifts is a way of establishing relationship. In gift economies, gifts are given without any formal agreement as to when the favour will be returned; however, the ethic of reciprocity is so strong that the gift creates an obligation to return the gift or favour, and in this way, an ongoing relationship is created. We can see this ethic at work in the giving of gifts for Yule and birthdays. If a friend gives me a gift, I feel an obligation to get them a gift in return.” – Yvonne Aburrow, Patheos
“Light returns in the midst of darkness. That’s how the world works, though human beings lose sight of that from time to time. In ancient times, on the shortest day of the year, they’d gather to await the light and herald its coming with feasting and roaring fires. Winter solstice, Yule, Christmas and Hanukkah are all about light breaking through darkness.” – Nancy Haught, The Oregonian
“I would like to feel that Yule is not just an observance of the balance of light and dark in the outer world, but that it is a moment where we reconcile ourselves to the light and dark within us. And I would like a story, a lesson, a moral teaching that contextualizes the spiritual conflict that is created by such a tragedy. I would like for us — for Pagans — to be willing to speak from our moral convictions about the need for compassion, the need for caring, the need for understanding. I would like for us to sit with the discomfort, and to be able to speak to the very hard stuff of being human.” – Teo Bishop, The Huffington Post
“Yule, like the star lights on houses, is the ancient reminder that there is always hope. That after the long barrenness, and ebbing, leaking light of November, there will arrive a purity and clarity of joy.” – Laura Marjorie Miller, Elephant Journal
“It’s no coincidence that all this cross-cultural, multi-millennial merrymaking takes place at year’s end, in the dark of winter. No matter what our faith, we crave the deep breath that the holiday season permits: The stock-taking, the work-stopping, the reconnecting. The indulgence in food, in sparkle, in silence. The acts of kindness. The honoring of traditions — yours, theirs, mine, every weird one of them. “ – Starshine Roshell, The Santa Barbara Independent
“In connecting with the natural world in a way that honors the sacred immanent in all things, we establish a resonance with the seasons. Ritual helps to shift our consciousness to reflect the outer world inside our inner landscape: the sun stands still within us, and time changes. After the longest night, we sing up the dawn. There is a rejoicing that, even in the darkest time, the sun is not vanquished. Sol Invictus — the Unconquered Sun — is seen once again, staining the horizon with the promise of hope and brilliance.” – T. Thorn Coyle, The Huffington Post
No matter what your religion or tradition, may this year’s winter celebrations and observances bring you peace and joy!