Winter Solstice Celebrations

The Winter Solstice is the shortest day, and the longest night of the year. The light has been steadily retreating since the Summer Solstice six months ago -- the longest day, shortest night. The decrease is so subtle that we barely notice the shift, the loss until nearly the Autumn Equinox when the light of day and the dark of the night are the same duration.

Come the fall, there is no denying. It is definitely getting darker and darker. The rays of the sun ever more indirect, their warmth and energy barely reaching us. And the sun keeps continuing on its course away from us, sliding ever further south.

The Winter Solstice is as dark as it gets. The sun is now at its nadir, the furthest southern limit of its orbit. And there it seems to stay. The Latin solstice means just that -- the sun stands still. For three days it seems to stand still, hovering, pausing in pregnant hesitation before its annual return to the Northern Hemisphere.

To us waiting here in the dark, winter is only just beginning. It will be long months before we can expect to smell the advance of spring in the air. But the consolation is that though the cold season is only starting, the sun has now turned its face toward us and has begun its return approach.

The light returns in its wake, increasing constantly so that by the Vernal Equinox the light of day is once again equal to the dark of night. And it keeps increasing until the Summer Solstice when again the sun stands still -- this time for three days at the northern pinnacle of it's path.

And so the cycle continues. But in the meantime it's damn dark out there. The days have shriveled to a skeleton flicker of light. The frozen nights are endless. No flowers. No birds. The earth itself congealed with cold.

We know with certainty that day follows night, spring follows winter. We are secure in the sure return of the faithful sun. We haven't the slightest conscious doubt. But wrapped in the dark womb of the weather, it is easy to imagine the terrifying prospect of the loss of the sun.

With the demise of the sun, the world would be cast back to the state which it occupied before creation. The void. The Great Uterine Darkness. The classical concept of chaos. It is from this elemental ether that the great creatrix goddesses are said to have brought forth all that is. This is the condition of the Great Goddess when she possesses all in potential that Tantric sages refer to as her aspect of "dark formlessness.''

"When there was neither the creation not the sun, the moon, the planets, and the earth, and when the darkness was enveloped in the Darkness, the Mother, the Formless One, Maha-Kali, the Great Power, was...The Absolute.''

This sacred spark of creative potential which is contained within the primordial womb is one of humanity's oldest concepts. The visual symbol which represents it, a dot enclosed within a circle, is also extremely ancient. Still in common use today, it is the astronomical notation for the sun.

Among the most archaic images of the sun is as the Goddess clothed in brilliant radiance. The Great Mother of pre-Islamic peoples of Southern Arabia was the sun. Atthar or Al-Ilat. In Mesopotamia she was called Arinna, Queen of Heaven. The Vikings named her Sol, the old Germanic tribes, Sunna, the Celts, Sul or Sulis. The Goddess Sun was known in Siberia and North America. And to this day, Japanese royalty trace their descent to Ameratsu, the Sun Goddess. The sun has retained its feminine gender in Japan as well as Arabia and Northern Europe.

Other cultures see the goddess not as the sun herself, but as the mother of the sun. The protector and controller of the sun and the cycles. According to Maori myth, the sun dies each night and returns to the cave/womb of the deep to bathe in her uterine waters of life from which he is re-born each day. The Indian fire god, Agni, is described as "He who swells in the mother.''

A relatively recent myth concerning the Winter Solstice is that on this day when the light begins to re-gain power and the day begins to lengthen, the Great Mother gave birth to the sun who is her son. The great Egyptian Mother Goddess, Isis, gave birth to her son Horus, the sun god, on the Winter Solstice. That day was the birthday of the Invincible Sun in Rome, Dies Natalis Invictis Solis, as well as that Apollo, Dionysus and Mithra, the Persian god of light and guardian against evil.

Christ, too, is a luminous son, the latest descendant of the ancient matriarchal mystery of the nativity of the sun. Since the gospel does not mention the exact date of his birth, it was not celebrated by the early church. It seems clear that when the church in the 4th century C.E. adopted December 25 as his birthday, it was in order to transfer the heathen devotions honoring the birth of the sun to him who was called "the sun of righteousness.''

A common theme of solstice ceremonies everywhere is the burning of fires to symbolically re-kindle the dwindling sun. People gather together to cheer on the ascendancy of the light.

Chanukah, the Jewish solstice Festival of Lights, commemorates a miracle wherein the one-day supply of oil which fueled the everlasting light on the altar of the temple was able to continue burning for the eight days it took to procure more oil. The Chanukah ritual involves the lighting and blessing of eight candles which are held in a menorah, a ceremonial candelabra. One additional candle is lit each of the eight nights of the festival, mimicking the gradual gathering of the light in the dark sky. For Jews, the candles represent the light of truth, the flame of freedom.

The Hindu Festival of Lights, Divali, comes about six weeks before the solstice, coinciding with our Fall festivals of dark death. The story surrounding Divali is that the Lord Rama was sent into exile (read darkness), but he was able to defeat the evil Demon Ravana and return home in triumph. People light small clay lanterns filled with oil called deyas to help lead him back to the light.

Throughout Northern Europe where the weather is more severe, the solstice fires were lit indoors. The Yule log and colored light decorations which are today emblematic of Christmas as the same as were once lit in honor of Sulis, Sol, Sunna, the old Goddess of the Sun. In Sweden Santa Lucia, Saint Light, is observed on December 13, the date of the Winter Solstice on the old Julian calendar. Young girls dressed in white nightgowns with crowns of lit candles in their hair parade the streets at dawn, waking people with coffee and fresh cakes.

Kwanzaa is an African American holiday which has been celebrated at the solstice season since 1966 when it was first conceived by Dr. Maulana Karenga, a Black Studies professor and cultural nationalist. Although it is inspired by East African harvest and thanksgiving festivals, Kwanzaa, meaning "first fruits" in Kiswahili, is celebrated as a solstice fire festival.

A major ritual element is the lighting of seven candles in a kinara, a holder. The black, red and green candles stand for the fundamental principles upon which a creative, productive and successful community life is based. Beginning on December 26, they are lit alternately from left to right, one each night, until they are all aglow.

In both Imperial China and pre-Columbian Peru, it was the holy duty of the emperor to personally assure the continuation of the cosmos through their annual performance of ritual sacrifices to heaven on the Winter Solstice. After fasting for three days they would each emerge before the winter sunrise and proceed to the top of the Round Mound in the Temple of Heaven in Bejing and to Haucaypata, Cuzco's ceremonial plaza. There, before retinues of their peoples, they offered libations and obeisance to the celestial center of the universe. They knelt, they bowed -- the Inca blew reverent kisses -- to the supreme source of all light.

Soyal is the Winter Solstice observance of the Hopi Indians of the American Southwest. During this sacred season of solar renewal, the kachinas, the spirit helpers of the tribe, emerge from the dark kivas. They come up from the underground ceremonial spaces to join the community for the six-month period of ascending light. Fires are lit and the original creation tale is retold, reenacted, reclaimed.

This ritual participation in the processes of the universe affirms and assures the continuation of the cyclical order of time. At Soyal, the sun is symbolically, ceremonially turned back, thus renewing life for all the world.

The return of the retreating sun that retrieves us from the dark of night, the pitch of winter, is a microcosmic recreation of the origination of the universe. The Winter Solstice is an anniversary celebration of creation. Lighting a light at the darkest time of the year is a pledge somehow. Such a small symbolic gesture, yet so significant. Each flicker of each flame is a reminder of the fragility and pulsing persistence of the life force, each spark a signal flare of faith.

A Sanskrit prayer for peace goes: "O Sun, source of light, love and / power in the universe / Whose radiance illuminates / the whole Earth, / illuminate also our hearts / That they, too may do your work.''

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