Thursday, December 22, 2011

Winter Solstice

At last the shortest day of the year - a time of celebration and good cheer. The sun is coming back - the days are getting longer - there is hope of spring again - though we have plenty of rain, wind and cold weather - at least is is better than a few years ago, when our world here in NW WA was covered in two feet of snow and more was coming down.

This is one of the favorite celebrations in our family - some are making "sun" cookies with yellow frosting - some are making art that reminds them of spring and sunshine - others are simply enjoying nature and thinking of the good things that have passed through our lives this past year.

Newgrange, in Ireland (Irish: DĂșn Fhearghusa) is one of the passage tombs in County Meath, one of the most famous prehistoric sites in the world and the most famous of all Irish prehistoric sites.

Newgrange was built in such a way that at dawn on the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice, a narrow beam of sunlight for a very short time illuminates the floor of the chamber at the end of the long passageway. This light lasts for 17 minutes on the day of the Winter Solstice. There are many prehistoric sites around the world that are also engineered in this manner.

The Roman midwinter holiday, Saturnalia, was both a gigantic fair and a festival of the home. Merry-making took place, and the halls of houses were decked with boughs of laurel and evergreen trees. Lamps were kept burning to ward off the spirits of darkness. Schools were closed. Friends visited one another, bringing good-luck gifts of fruit, cakes, candles, dolls, jewelry, and incense. Temples were decorated with evergreens symbolizing life's continuity. Many of the modern Christian Christmas traditions were taken from ancient Solstice celebrations, in an attempt to combine the pagan with their beliefs.

In pagan Scandinavia the winter festival was the yule (or juul). Great yule logs were burned, and people drank mead around the bonfires listening to minstrel-poets singing ancient legends. It was believed that the yule log had the magical effect of helping the sun to shine more brightly.

Yule log

A Scandinavian Yule tree - lit with candles.

Mistletoe, which was sacred because it mysteriously grew on the most sacred tree, the oak, was ceremoniously cut and a spray given to each family, to be hung in the doorways as good luck. The celtic Druids also regarded mistletoe as sacred. Druid priests cut it from the tree on which it grew, with a golden sickle, and handed it to the people, calling it All-Heal. To hang it over a doorway or in a room was to offer goodwill to visitors. Kissing under the mistletoe was a pledge of friendship. Mistletoe still has a special place in our Christmas celebrations.

There are great traditions to build on and enjoy this time of year. A wreath is a good place to start - a symbol of the circle of a year. After making the wreath and making wishes for the coming year - it can be placed outdoors. After the new year the wreath can be recycled back to nature - or it can be saved and burned in the Summer Solstice bonfire.

If you like - add some pine cones spread with pnut butter and rolled in bird seeds - to welcome our feathered friends to our homes.

Making desserts is a great way to celebrate - and add birthday candles to the dessert - which often might have the shape of a sun on it. Each family member can light one candle and give a thankful thought about the past year - or a hopeful thought for the coming year.

Big fires in the fireplace - or burning candles if you are not so fortunate to have a fireplace - are both symbolic of the solstice celebration - calling to the sun to come back and shine stronger for a spring and summer of growing food.

Gift giving is a wondeful tradition on the Solstice - either opening one of the many gifts under the tree - or having special gifts in a basket to share with family and friends on this wonderful day.

And baskets of food are often taken to friends and family as part of the Solstice celebration. Don't forget some of those sunny cookies.

And of course singing is a great part of any Solstice celebration - Deck the Halls, and Carol of the Bells are two very significant songs sung at this time of the year. Reminders of our connection with nature and our connection of our past to our future.

We find many of our holiday celebrations come from variations of the ancient celebrations - bringing us all closer together, sharing our celebrations with one another.

Happy Solstice to all - we'd love to hear about your Solstice celebrations.


Julie in the Barn said...

Lots of fun info. Thanks, Jo. Merry Solstice to you & your family.

regan said...

That was really interesting, especially the part about Newgrange. I just told my hubby what you wrote, and we both realized that we wouldn't have a clue how to do something like that, and yet, in prehistoric times, those guys figured it out! Hmmmm! Amazing!

Have a very Happy Solstice!

Sunny said...

Beautifully informative post. My solstice celebration this year was getting a good report from the visiting phys therapy person on the progress I was making since knee surgery last week. And spending time with my little "snow-white" Izzy, dog companion :)
Merry Christmas , Jo!

Rowan said...

Great post Jo - and I love those pine cone candles! Hope you have a wonderful festive season.

Celestial Charms said...

Happy belated Solstice. I'm always late for everything! ;)
I love reading about interesting things, such as this. Thanks for sharing all the details.

lila said...

Lovely images of the season!
We must indeed celebrate!

Lili said...

Our Winter Solstice was spent waiting for the snow to fall...and now it's here...a White Christmas! I like the part about eating cookies and opening a present. ha! This was so neat to read about all the special celebrations and traditions. ~Lili

goddess in the groove said...

Lovely :)