Winter Solstice

I have news for you: the stag bells
Winter snows,
wind high and cold,
the sun low, short its course
The sea running high
Deep red the bracken, its shape is lost
The wild goose has raised its accustomed cry
Cold has seized the birds wings
Season of ice
This is my news
(poem from a 9th century Celtic bard)

When harpers once in wooden hall
A shining chord would strike
Their songs like arrows pierced the soul
Of great and low alike
Aglow by hearth and candle flame
From burning branch or ember
The mist of all their music sang
As if to ask in wonder
Is there a moment quite as keen
Or memory as bright
As light and fire and music sweet
To warm the winter’s night?

There is a great silence that blankets the world in midwinter. Nature’s stillness allows us to access our inner silence. Alone under a night sky punctuated with stars, we may notice the deep quiet that settles all around us. In that quiet we can hear the whispers of ancestors gathering around bright fires on long cold nights, awaiting the return of the sun.

So the shortest day came, and the year died,
And everywhere down the centuries of the snow-white world
Came people singing, dancing,
To drive the dark away.
They lit candles in the winter trees;
They hung their homes with evergreen;
They burned beseeching fires
To keep the year alive,
And when the new year’s sunshine blazed awake
They shouted, reveling.
Through all the frosty ages you can hear them echoing behind us
— Listen!!
All the long echoes sing the same delight,
This shortest day,
As promise wakens in the sleeping land:
They carol, feast, give thanks,
And dearly love their friends,
And hope for peace.
And so do we, here, now, this year and every year.
Welcome Yule!
(from the book The Shortest Day by Susan Cooper)

Let us go back in time and visit some of these winter revelers in days gone by. In Iran, families would keep fires burning all night to assist the light forces in its battle with the dark ones. They continue to celebrate today, visiting family and friends and feasting on special treats like watermelon, pomegranate, and pistachios. Ancient Romans celebrated Dies Natalis Invicti Solis, the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun. During the darkest time of the year, masters and their slaves reversed roles. Many other cultures’ winter festivals featured the turning of social norms on their heads, often featuring a reigning jester, while deriding nobility. The Dongzhi Festival in China, which also took place during midwinter, nourishing foods full of welcome calories like dumplings and tangyuan, a dessert of colorful balls of rice flour in a sweet broth.

December 13, St. Lucia’s Day, originated in Sweden as a winter solstice celebration. Girls processed through the streets to church, singing songs and wearing a crowns of candles and white robe with red sash. The celebration continued back at home with tasty treats like saffron buns, pepparkakor and glögg. In so many countries, sweet pungent spices like cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, cloves, pepper, and others were central to the celebration.

Celts associated winter solstice with Alban Arthan, the light of the Bear, represented by the constellation Ursa Major. In the northern hemisphere, the stars of the big dipper shone through the darkness of Winter. Celtic stories of the incarnate spirit of winter were represented by the Green Knight in the mythical realm of King Arthur. The knight arrives at Arthur’s hall as Christmas festivities are under way and offers a strange game – that someone should strike the knight with all their strength knowing that they would receive a blow of equal force in a year’s time. Only Gawain is brave enough to accept the challenge, and he undergoes many trials before the tale ends.

The word yule derives from the Anglo-Saxon term for wheel. Before the advent of Christianity, these northern peoples would celebrate the longest night of the year drinking mead around a bonfire while listening to stories told by minstrel-poets. They would burn logs burned during the previous midwinter fire to signal the passing of the seasons. Yule festivities were connected with the Wild Hunt, the god Odin, and the pagan Anglo-Saxon Mōdraniht. In Old Norse poetry, yule is a synonym for ‘feast’, such as in the kenning hugins jól meaning a raven’s feast. Yuletide lasted approximately 2 months from mid-November to early January. It was later Christianized to Christmastide.

Many of the symbols of winter solstice have been incorporated into our celebrations of Christmas. Boughs of holly and evergreen represented the renewing power of nature and the return of the sun. Santa Claus climbing down a chimney to deliver presents may have represented a shamanic journey into the upper worlds, returning to the lower worlds with the gifts of wisdom and prophecy. The notion of a sleigh pulled by reindeer may have originated with Scandinavian and Siberian cultures who still rely on and venerate the reindeer. The figure of Saint Nicholas was based on the bishop of Myra who lived in 300 AD Turkey. He used his inheritance to assist the needy, the sick, and the suffering. He became known throughout the land for his generosity to those in need, particularly his love for children, and his concern for sailors and ships. Wanting to bring something of joy to poor children in his parish, he would slip into houses at night and leave gifts in their shoes.

Let us take this time to honor and connect with the darkness within, and with the light. Take a moment to let your gaze turn inward, scanning your body from head to toe. Notice any sensations or feelings. Become aware of the space around you – the sky above, the earth below, the land encircling you. As your eyes adjust, you find yourself in a dark forest under a night sky. There is no moon, and the dim starlight twinkles through the trees. Evergreen trees flank your sides, their boughs heavy with snow. Take a deep breath and smell the fresh scent of wet pine boughs. Listen: a deep hush lays across the land. All is still, as if waiting, breathless. Take a minute to feel this hush in yourself. (pause) Now notice that there is a small path between the sweet smelling evergreen branches. Snow falls upon you as you brush past. You can smell the needles crushed underfoot. The green boughs store life energy and even now are preparing to store the sun’s warmth. Feel their softness brush against your skin, smell their fragrance, listen to their stories. See the sparkle of snow in the moonlight, feel the brush of its powder as boughs shake loose. Starlight awakens ancient memories which surface as you wander the forest path. They swirl around you like the flakes dancing on your eyelashes. There is a deep hush that has fallen over the dark woods. Ahead you see a small clearing. As you step forward, you notice a fire has been built but is not yet lit. Kneel down and light the kindling. As you gaze into the flame, feel yourself surrounded by your ancestors who join to make a circle around the hearth fire. Allow yourself to reflect on the gifts and challenges of the past year. (pause) After a time, you hear an owl’s call, a signal to begin making your way back along the forest path. As you walk, feel the pine needles as they brush your face, the cold wind on your skin, the drops of water from melting snowflakes on your nose. Notice the moon glinting off the snowy boughs, the sparkle of starlight on snowbanks, the rough outline of trees. When you reach the trail’s beginning, allow yourself to begin coming back to this place. Feel your feet on the floor, your back against the bench. Notice your breathing, slow and deep. You have been touched by the quiet stillness and peace of the forest.

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 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 light that is to be.
(from the poem In Memoriam by Alfred Lord Tennyson)


One response to “Winter Solstice

  1. Thank you for this, especially for your “winter’s night meditation”! Sitting here in the sterile, cacophonous bustle of SeaTac, it was a much welcomed interlude. (Also – can you point me to the source of the Celtic poem at the beginning? I want to read more!)


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