This weekend is the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere, the shortest day of the year. Of course that also means that in the southern hemisphere they will observe the summer solstice or the longest day of the year. The solstices occur when the sun’s path is either at it’s farthest point north or south of the equator.
I celebrate both the summer and the winter solstice. Although the summer solstice represents the longest day of the year, I also feel a little sad because from that day forward the days will start to get shorter. With the winter solstice I tend to feel more hopeful because the days start to get longer from that point.
The solstices also represent duality in nature, light versus dark, yin and yang, good and evil, even life and death. In Chinese tradition, at the winter solstice, the yin energy or female energy has reached it’s peak. The yang energy or male energy begins to grow stronger until it’s peak at the summer solstice.
A Celtic tradition is the story of the Holly and Oak Kings. At the winter solstice the Kings do battle where the Oak King wins and rules the earth until the Holly King returns at the summer solstice and regains the throne where he once again rules. It is an age old battle of duality where one can not exist with out the other.
From a seasonal point of view, winter is a time when nature sleeps. Our ancestors, who were closely tied to nature and depended on her bounties in order to survive the harsh elements of winter, looked at the winter solstice as a turning point in the seasonal cycle of the earth. The return of longer days was seen as a rebirth of life in nature and so the winter solstice was celebrated to welcome the return of the sun and as a sign of hope.
Many cultures celebrate the return of the sun by lighting bonfires and candles and ensuring they stay lit throughout the longest night of the year. Before electricity, the only form of light was either the sun or fire so it is easy to see how these two elements represent life. With out the sun there is no warmth for things to grow therefore no food to sustain life and without fire there is no heat and light to sustain life in the absence of the sun.
Modern western culture celebrates Christmas as it’s winter festival yet there are several traditions within it that are similar to ancient solstice celebrations. The Holly King of Celtic tradition was often depicted dressed in red with a sprig of holly in his hair and driving a team of eight wild stags. We adorn our homes with lots of Christmas lights to brighten the long winter nights, a modern version of lighting candles or fires to ward off the dark. Even the birth of Jesus which to Christians is seen as a sign of hope is similar to the Celts belief that the return of the sun and longer days was a sign of hope and a cause for celebration including food and drink with friends and family. Isn’t that what we do during the Christmas season?
What ever your religious beliefs and whatever celebrations you hold closes to your heart during the holiday season consider the winter solstice and the important part it plays in the northern hemisphere on Dec. 21st. We are intricately tied to nature whether we choose to see it or not. The longest night of the year and the slow return of the light are reasons to give us hope for the rebirth of nature in the spring, the bounty of life in the summer and the gifts of the harvest in the autumn. Consider adding an extra tradition this season by lighting a candle this Saturday and saying a little prayer of hope in honour of the winter solstice.