by C.H. Weaver M.D.
Amid the whirl of the holiday season, many few individuals are aware of the approach of the winter solstice. The date of the winter solstice varies from year to year, and can fall anywhere between December 20 and December 23, with the 21st or 22nd being the most common dates. The reason for this is because the tropical year—the time it takes for the sun to return to the same spot relative to Earth—is different from the calendar year.
The word “solstice” means “sun stands still”.
Solstice derives from the Latin scientific term solstitium, containing sol, which means "sun," and the past participle stem of sistere, meaning "to make stand." This comes from the fact that the sun’s position in the sky relative to the horizon at noon, which increases and decreases throughout the year, appears to pause in the days surrounding the solstice.
Solstice marks the shortest day of the year in the northern hemisphere.
As most are keenly aware, daylight hours grow shorter and shorter as the solstice approaches, and begin to slowly lengthen afterward. It’s no wonder that the day of the solstice is referred to in some cultures as the "shortest day" or "extreme of winter." Boston will experience ~ 9 and 1/2 hours of sunlight, compared to ~16 hours on the summer solstice. Parts of Alaska, will not have a sunrise at all (and hasn't since mid-November; its next sunrise will be on January 22), while the North Pole has had no sunrise since October.
The winter solstice was a time of death and rebirth for ancient cultures.
The seeming death of the light and very real threat of starvation over the winter months weighed heavily on early societies. These culture often held solstice celebrations meant to herald the return of the Sun and hope for new life. Scandinavian and Germanic pagans lit fires and may have burned Yule logs as a symbolic means of welcoming back the light. Cattle and other animals were slaughtered around midwinter, followed by feasting on what was the last fresh meat for several months.
The solstice happens at a specific moment.
Not only does the solstice occur on a specific day, but it also occurs at a specific time of day, corresponding to the instant the North Pole is aimed furthest away from the sun on the 23.5 degree tilt of the Earth’s axis. This is also the time when the sun shines directly over the Tropic of Capricorn.
The mid winter festival of Saturnalia gradually replaced by Christmas celebrated “reversals” in the Roman Empire.
The holiday, which began as a festival to honor the agricultural god Saturn, was held to commemorate the dedication of his temple in 497 BCE. It quickly became a time of widespread revelry and debauchery in which societal roles were overturned, with masters serving their slaves and servants being allowed to insult their masters. Mask-wearing and play-acting were also part of Saturnalia’s reversals, with each household electing a King of Misrule. Saturnalia was gradually replaced by Christmas throughout the Roman Empire, but many of its customs survive as Christmas traditions.
Celebrating Winter Solstice Embrace the return of light!
The winter solstice has carried strong symbolism for many, many years. Some refer to solstice as the rebirth of the sun—and not coincidentally Christmas celebrates the birth of the Son. Ancient cultures feared the light of the sun would not return unless they performed vigils and rituals on the solstice.
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Solstice can be a magical, contemplative time—a night of spiritual reconnection and ritual. While solstice may not have gained the notoriety of Christmas, Hanukah, or Kwanza, many people celebrate it as a deeply meaningful holiday—a time to celebrate renewal, rebirth, and gratitude for the coming light.
There is no right or wrong way to celebrate winter solstice. Symbolically, the solstice is a time of turning inward, into the darkness, into the depths of the unknown. It’s a time of tuning into a deep sense of intuition—trusting your inner voice. In a sense, it is a time of feeling your way in the dark when you cannot see where you are going. Many people like to use the solstice as a time of deep meditation—to reflect on what has been and what will be.
There are many ways to celebrate the significance of winter solstice:
Embrace the darkness. Make the solstice an evening of ritual. As the sun sets, turn off all lights and electronic devices. Light several candles and spend the evening reflecting on the dark and light. Use the darkness to help you turn inward and tune into that quiet, internal voice. Meditate on gratitude for the many gifts in your life. Enjoy the opportunity for quiet contemplation and set an intention for the coming year. Invite the impending light into your heart and vow to live joyfully and light-heartedly.
Hold a ritual for letting go. “It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.” Some people celebrate solstice by chasing away the darkness. Gather around a large outdoor bonfire and celebrate the return of light. Write down anything you may want to let go of and toss it into the fire. Bask in the warm glow of the fire as you welcome a new beginning.
Get festive. Solstice doesn’t have to be a somber, meditative experience—it can be joyful and lighthearted. Decorate your home with the seasonal gifts of nature such as holly, fir branches, mistletoe, and pine cones. Light a Yule log in the fireplace and gather friends and family for a festive evening of food and drink. You may even encourage costumes—sunbeams and stars are a popular theme.
However you choose to celebrate solstice, take a moment to offer up gratitude for the gifts in your life. Let there be light.