The Winter solstice on the 21st December 2012 is the shortest day and the longest night of the year in the northern hemisphere. The sun arcs at its lowest point on the horizon and remains on the same trajectory for three days and three nights before ascending again on the 25th December. The day’s then become longer and the nights shorter until the spring equinox where night and day are equal in length. Many ancient stone circles and other monuments are aligned with the winter sunrise on the 21st of December. The most famous being Newgrange in Ireland, where a finger of sunlight shines along the dark entrance through a narrow aperture above the monument’s entrance.
Many of the symbols of Christmas echo the winter solstices aspect of rebirth and hope in darkness. For example the Winter Solstice was a time when people came out of hibernation and gathered together with family and friends. It was a time of generosity, loving, giving and letting go. People would wrap up unwanted possessions and place them in a basket so that each could choose a gift. It was a time to bring food and drink to share at a feast. To light fires, tell stories, to sing and entertain each other… Holly was thought to be important because it retains its greenery right through the winter months, and as such is a symbol of summer life in the winter starkness. Holly was the male symbol of this greenery, and Ivy was the feminine, the two often placed together in a circle just like the Christmas decorations you find on most peoples doors symbolising the cycle of the seasons and everlasting life at the dark end of the year. There was also a belief that evergreen plants and trees were refuges for the woodland spirits through the winter.
Yule was the traditional name for the celebrations around the 25th December, the festival lasted for twelve days, which are now the twelve days of Christmas. The origin of the word Yule seems to originate from the Anglo Saxon word for sun and light. Most likely regarding the rebirth of the sun from the shortest day.
The birth of Christ on the 25th December ties in with the Winter solstice celebration of 21st December too. This is the day that the Sun (after three days and nights) is resurrected and ascends into heaven. The resurrection of Christ (The S.u.n of God) isn’t celebrated until Easter time (The Spring Equinox) where the light of the sun actually overpowers the darkness of night and we head towards the summer solstice.
In the 4-5th centuries, Christmas and the winter solstice were on the same day and it was said “Christ was born with the new sun, as the Sun of Justice, Sol Iustitiae and transformed the cold winter season with a new sun and his birth brought salvation and he ordered the nights to shorten and the daylight to grow with himself.”
The winter solstice is the time where symbolically we are furthest away from the light. Our descent into darkness is almost complete and so this time of the year, marks a significant turning point as the wheel of fortune turns in our favour and we begin once again to move towards the light. The old year has died away and is now prepared for the rebirth of activity and expansion into the outer world. As such it is seen as the festival of rebirth, but it is not a beginning in a linear sense but part of our cycle of death and rebirth.
As the outer world has darkened, we have journeyed into the inner realms through introspection and reflection and as the winter solstice heralds a time of letting go we can lay aside all that no longer serves us on our journey. Releasing old energy opens the way for new energy to come in so the winter solstice is the time to birth our visions and dreams and make our resolutions for the coming year.
To let go of what you no longer need in your life and focus your intentions on what you do want try these exercises that are drawn from the tradition of winter solstice celebrations and enable you to ritualise this time and set new goals for the future.
On the 21st December
Spend some time in meditation thinking about the year that has passed and all you have experienced. with pen and paper at the ready, write down all the things that you no longer wish to experience and that no longer serve you in your life. Ideally if you have a fireplace Decorate a wooden log with pieces of paper tied to it with all the things you wish to let go of written on it and place it into the fire. Make it a ritual with a family or group, each stating out loud what they no longer want in their lives as they place the log onto the fire.
On 25th December
Christmas day! take a candle and each of you light it and speak out your wishes hopes and intentions for the future year ahead. Place each candle in a large bowl of sand and then let it burn right down to the wick.
On 31st December
After all your presents have been opened and the tree looks bare, on New Years Eve, get everyone to write down their dreams and wishes for the year ahead and tie them to the Christmas tree. This is a great ritual if you have a tree with roots and you can then plant it outside and watch it grow through the year.