In the northern hemisphere the winter solstice falls around December 21st or 22nddepending on exactly where you are on the planet. According to earthsky.org the 2011 winter solstice takes place on Thursday, December 22 at 5:30 Universal Time. That would be Wednesday, December 21 at 11:30 p.m. Central Standard Time.
This is a significant time of year that in North America takes a back seat to the now more prominent Christmas season. Yet the two are so intertwined, more intertwined than I had realized and probably much more than my now limited knowledge is aware of. I am quite impressed with my level of ignorance about the importance of the winter solstice throughout history.
The science of this fundamental time of year focuses on the movement of the sun, the moon and the earth in relation to one another and the subsequent amount of sunlight, length of the daytime and the nighttime. It all has to do with the position of the sun in relation to the earth, the tilt of the earth and how that has an impact on the cycles related to weather that we call seasons. Frankly I have not taken any time to truly understand the science of it.
During the winter solstice we have the longest noontime shadow of the year. We experience the shift in the natural cycle of the seasons. It is the start of winter. This is the time of the shortest day and longest night of the year. It is a significant turning point where we celebrate the days becoming longer and having less darkness that is night.
Technical information about the science of the winter solstice is aplenty but that is not where my fascination lies.
I am fascinated with the historical accounts of this time of year. I am fascinated with the extent and expanse of the rituals and traditions associated with the winter solstice and with the significance for humans and our place on the planet. From my perspective this is so important to our well-being yet except for the rare solstice festival it is pretty well ignored by current day society. Perhaps we are too busy with commerce and technology to notice the cycles of nature that so affect us.
Historically the winter solstice was and continues to be celebrated by all cultures. It was initiated by attention to the changing light and seasons and what that meant for availability of food, warmth, light and the subsequent impact on activity. A celebration of the return to a period of warmth, light and plenty and the end of dormancy, darkness and cold is shared across cultures and time. The celebrations are called different things among different cultures and areas of the world but there is shared significance. That Christmas is celebrated at the same is most likely not a coincidence and not something I wish to explore at this time.
The shared significance across cultures and areas of the world developed from attention to and being attuned to the natural cycles of the planet. This is paying attention to nature and our relationship with it. With this came the celebration of the rebirth of the sun and the return of light. This is the birth of a new solar year and with that came the varied traditions of renewal. This is a natural time of the year to let go and to say farewell to resentments and regrets gathered over the year. An interesting ritual for the time of year is to sit in the dark and to reflect on what one wants to release from the previous year and to ponder the coming year with its endless opportunity. Activities we now associate with the New Year on January 1st. Another interesting custom connected to the solstice is to spend quality time with nature—being in the forest to gather holly and other greens or just to walk in the woods. This appeals to me.
I found it interesting to discover that many of the rituals and customs cultivated as part of the winter solstice are customs that we now think are traditional Christmas customs. It is funny how things get all tangled up and how we sometimes lose sight of original meaning and intentions. Some of these customs include the use of candles or colored lights as a sign of fire to honor the return of the sun and its light; the significance of mistletoe that grows on the oak tree considered sacred to the Druids who were the priests of the old Celts; the giving of gifts to family and friends as a demonstration of forgiveness or letting go of past hurts or misunderstandings; the fir tree that is now our Christmas tree which was a symbol of renewal the green important at this otherwise dormant time of year; the colors green, red and white all tied to nature and honored as such. As a Canadian lights and candles, giving gifts, greens and mistletoe, the tree and the colors green, red and white have all been standards for Christmas time. Little did I know the ancient meaning of these as being signs of renewal and of the rebirth of the ever important sun? I will view these things differently from now on.
Maybe it does not matter exactly where and when traditions are created and how they eventually evolved as long as we once in a while step back and examine whether the integrity remains.
I found a poem called Ring Out, Wild Bells written by Alfred Lord Tennyson that seems to sum up the significance and the hope that can come from our attention to the changing position of the earth and the sun and the opportunities for us to reflect and move forward in a more positive light.
Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light;
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.
Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.
Ring out the grief that saps the mind,
For those that here we see no more,
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.
Ring out a slowly dying cause
And ancient forms of party strife;
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.
Ring out the want, the care the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times;
Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes,
But ring the fuller minstrel in.
Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.
Ring out old shapes of foul disease
Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.
Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.
May you be able to take some time over this busy time to reflect, to release and to celebrate the return of the sun.
Irene McDermott © 2011