TWH — This week, many Pagans, Heathens and polytheists in the Northern Hemisphere are marking the winter solstice with celebrations, feasts, and rituals. The solstice will occur on Thursday, Dec. 21 at 16:28 UTC. It is a day traditionally celebrated for being the longest night and shortest day of the year.
This time of year is held sacred within many different modern religious and spiritual traditions, and has a rich history in ancient pagan religions. The solstice time was important to prehistoric peoples in both Ireland and England. While there is scant evidence of specific celebrations, it is generally thought that the pagan Celts did, in some way, honor the time around the solstice.
Germanic Pagans celebrated Yule, or Yuul. During this holiday, the god Freyr was typically honored. Many mainstream holiday traditions, most of which are associated with Christmas, originated in the old Yule festivals, such as eating a ham or hanging holly and mistletoe.
The Romans celebrated Saturnalia, which typically ran from Dec. 17 through Dec. 23. The festival honored the god Saturn and featured lavish parties and role reversals. From Saturnalia we have inherited the traditions of exchanging gifts and decorating evergreen trees indoors. Similar to some of the Yule traditions, these festivities were eventually adopted as part of the Christmas celebration.
Following Saturnalia, there were birth celebrations honoring Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun) and Mithras, both held on Dec. 25.
Many modern Pagans, including Wiccans, Witches, several Druidic traditions, and their many offshoots hold this time as one of the eight sabbats, or holy days. Called either winter solstice or Yule, this is a time when many of these traditions celebrate the rebirth of the god by the mother goddess.
Many other holidays occur in and around this time, not excluding the more well-known celebrations of Christmas, Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, and New Year’s Day. For example, in Lucumi, the Feast of Babalú-Ayé (or St. Lazarus) is celebrated on Dec. 17, and, from Dec. 21-25, many Hindus will be observing Pancha Ganapati, which honors Ganesh.
As we have reported in the past, the holiday season not only welcomes Mr. Claus for some, but also Krampus, who reportedly is growing in popularity.
Lastly, for our friends and family living in the Southern Hemisphere, December marks the time of the summer solstice. Pagans, Heathens, and polytheists living in those regions have been readying to celebrate the sun at its height and nature at its most lush.
Here are some thoughts on the observance of these holidays from our Wild Hunt writing team:
“Most Solstice mornings, I’m the only one who’s awake early enough to see Helios rising. Not reborn, exactly, but renewed. Ready to gain strength and lend it to us. I sip my tea and think about the previous year while waiting for the dawn. Once that first tinge of light appears, I begin writing down what I see. How Helios appears is the omen for how my year will turn out.
“I was hoping the sun would burst forth this morning, shining warmly, as a good omen for the year. Instead it’s cold and overcast and looks to stay that way all day. Perhaps this means a holding pattern of how things are right now? Not great, but not awful. A calm, boring year. If so, I’ll take it because the last two years have been dreadful. I can make my own warmth with the love of family and friends. As for light? It’s light enough to see what’s important.” – journalist Cara Schulz
“In our family, winter solstice falls during the Saturnalia season, and marks the beginning of the new year. The moment of solstice is one of quiet reflection, but the celebration starts just before sunset and lasts all night. For the past six weeks, we’ve rested, reflected on the past, and considered the future. At ritual, we open jars sealed at the summer solstice with goals for the dark half of the year. We speak of past accomplishments and future commitments to ourselves and the gods for the light half of the year. We bless and seal these in jars that remain on our personal altars until summer solstice in June.
“Tonight after feasting, I’ll sit by the fire to write and to eat something sweet. This has been a long and hard year. The sweetness is a reminder of starting as I intend the year to continue. During the night, I meditate or do a tarot reading and listen for messages from the Gods. Staying up all night is a celebration of the darkness left behind, but also a reminder of promise of the new year as the sun rises. – columnist Clio Ajana
“I come from a long line of grinches. Shopping from a list of suggestions seemed to miss the point of giving gifts, and how is a killing a tree not murder? At some point when my back was turned, however, the gods pulled a fast one on me. We do bring in a dead tree to the delight of the cats, but we give offerings in thanks. I shop from a list, but only for my mother because it makes her happy. Heck, I even composed the family’s first holiday newsletter!
“What I’ve learned along the way is that being happy, and bringing happiness, matters. Diving headlong into a sea of consumer frenzy does not bring me happiness, but neither does getting angry about that state of affairs. Getting preachy about it just guarantees that the only friends left would be as angry as I. The result? A simple solstice of honoring my gods followed by a simple Giftmas sharing joy and gifts with loved ones. Thanks, gods. You rock.” – assistant editor and journalist Terence P. Ward.
“My family celebrates many different traditions during this time of year but one that I feel the most connected to is the celebration of Kwanzaa. We made our first kinara with materials from Michaels, and then last year ordered a big new one that will last for years to come. The celebration of our cultural heritage, our ancestors, the nguzo saba (the seven principles of Kwanzaa), and the alignment with what it means to be of African descent are things that has become monumental in the way we embrace the holidays.
“We light our one candle a night on the kinara; we talk about what that night’s principle means; we listen to Sweet Honey in the Rock’s Seven Principles song so that we can learn the right pronunciation of the Swahili words for the nguzo saba, and we spread love for each other and for who we are. My kids usually get stuck on saying Kujichagulia (koo-ji-chah-goo-LEE-ah) all week repeatedly because of the way it rolls off their tongue; I have no problem with them getting stuck on the concept of self determination at all.
“This year will be our first year celebrating the feast on the last night with my brothers and their families. May we all feel a connection with principles that reinforce who we are and who we want to be in our communities. Have a blessed and happy Kwanzaa. These are the seven principles in a simplified version: umoja (oo-MOH-JAH) or unity; kujichagulia (koo-ji-chah-goo-LEE-ah) or self-determination; ujima (oo-JEE-mah) or collective work and responsibility; uamma (oo-jah-MAH) or cooperative economics; nia (NEE-ah) or purpose; kuumba (koo-OO-mbah) or creativity; and imani (ee-MAH-nee) or faith” – columnist, Crystal Blanton
“Our group’s winter solstice celebrations start with a potluck dinner. Over the years, it has morphed into a curry buffet – a warm and welcome change from the typical turkey and trimmings at this time of year. We start drooling at Samhain for Larry’s butter chicken, and my latest attempt to master palak paneer. Warm and bright curry to sustain a coven, or Witches and family, through the darkest nights and coldest days of a harsh prairie winter. We gather tonight for our feast. The temperature is diving down to minus 27 Celsius, with a windchill of 41 below zero in Winnipeg tonight. We will need the warmth of the food, and each others company to get through these frigid days.” – journalist Dodie Graham McKay
“Living in the arctic, the winter solstice means so much more than the shortest day of the year. Winters can get tough under the two-month long Polar Night so when December’s end grows close all can finally look forward to the time, one mont from now, when the life-giving sun will finally make its return to these hyperborean shores.” – columnist Lyonel Perabo
“For me, this season, year after year, has always demonstrated the true power and possibility of the human spirit. I have lived my life in an interfaith family, between the worlds of religious practice or none at all. During this time, unlike at any other point in the year, my family festivities bring together everyone, no matter what they believe or where they worship. This has held true as long as I can remember. My Jewish family sits at the holiday table with my Christian family; Pagans sing songs with atheists. At this time, we are simply together – sharing food, laughter, tears, and memories.
“This is a special kind of magic; a special kind of sacred. It is devotion to gods, to spirit, and to humanity itself. This coming together is hope and possibility manifest. No matter how dark it gets, inside or out, or how divided we seem to be, the universal human spirit of hope flickers inside each of us. Whatever you celebrate and whatever you believe, may you be comforted by the light’s return, and may it feed your own flame of inner hope toward the possibility of a brighter future.
“And that is something we need this year, more than ever.” – managing editor Heather Greene
“Happy Summer Solstice from down under! The longest days of the year here are usually very hot, and dry: this is a period of total fire ban for us, which means the roaring bonfires called for by a number of European Pagan traditions at Midsummer are out of the question. I’ve attended solstice rituals where we’ve watched enormous storms roll in over the Australian bush as we shared cakes and ale. One year it was 44 degrees (Celsius) and not even safe to use lanterns outdoors. We used solar lights instead, encircling our rite with tiny pinpricks of energy from the sun.
“Other local Pagan traditions at this time of year include sunscreen, eating far too many icey poles and frequenting beer gardens.” – columnist Josephine Winter
“For many, the darkness this year is deeper and more painful than just the position of the sun. It has been a divisive, difficult year, compounded by the loss of beloved actors and musicians. It is so valuable to acknowledge and even embrace the dark, especially on this darkest night. To acknowledge and embrace the places where we feel hurt, but there is a rhythm to everything and the light will return. Just as the sun begins to return its light to the Earth today, so can we choose to bear our lights back into the world. From activism to magick to merely setting a good example for others, there are so many ways every one of us can help return the light. Find yours. Be the change. Bring the light. Blessed Yule.” – columnist Tim Titus
From our family to yours, may you have a very blessed solstice, winter or summer, and the merriest of holiday seasons.