Light Is Returning: Celebrate the Winter Solstice

English: Highworth cemetery at the winter sols...

Today is a special day if you live in the Northern Hemisphere. It is the shortest day of the year. Tonight (or early tomorrow morning depending on your time zone) we reach the Winter Solstice, afterward the sun will once again travel north and our days will slowly begin to lengthen.

If you live south of the equator, of course it is all opposite. It’s your Summer Solstice. You all have reached your peak of daylight and now your sunrises will be just a bit later each morning.

It’s interesting how here in the north lands people developed holiday celebrations and traditions to ease the them through these darkest days, and to celebrate the return of the light.

The actual moment of the Solstice varies each year. This year it occurs at 5:30 a.m.(Universal Time) on December 22nd. That means the moment of the Solstice here on the West Coast of the U.S. will be at 9:30 p.m. on the 21st. Find out when it occurs in your own time zone here.

Years ago I wrote an article about the origins of our winter holiday traditions. I thought this would be a good day to share it with you all. Here is a slightly edited version. Enjoy!

Pagan Roots of our Winter Holiday Celebrations

Christmas! We love it, we hate it, and some of us just tolerate it.  Many of us join in the festivities even if we are not practicing Christians – we exchange gifts with friends and family, we put up lights and trim the Christmas tree, our kitchens exude the sweet smells of baking cookies. And really all of this can be kind of fun even if it is a bit exhausting.

Did you ever wonder, though, just what all this baking and decorating has to do with the birth of Jesus? How did all these holiday customs come about anyway?  Actually most of them have nothing to do with Christianity. You may be surprised to learn that the early Christians hijacked this winter holiday, and many of its rituals, from the ancient pagans and their celebration of the Winter Solstice.

The Celts of Northern Europe, the Romans, and people all over the Northern Hemisphere have celebrated the Solstice for eons. When the early Christian Fathers were converting these so-called heathens, they arbitrarily declared the birth date of Jesus to be December 25th.

In reality nobody knew when the exact date was, but it worked out well for this new religion to establish the holiday in late December because all those pagans were already partying and celebrating. (Incidentally they did this with many of the old pagan holidays, thus, the Spring Equinox became Easter, Samhain (or Halloween) became All Soul’s Day, etc.)

In late December, in the dead of winter, the European pagans celebrated the return of the Sun from its long journey into the darkness. It is commonly referred to as the Winter Solstice – the moment when the sun at its greatest distance from the celestial equator. It marks the longest night of the year and the shortest day.

The Romans called it Saturnalia, the Northern European Celts often referred to it as Yule, but whatever its name it was definitely a cause for celebration. I mean, think about it – this was before electric lights and most people had a direct connection to and dependence on the health of the crops.

Many ancients believed that if the Sun was not honored at this time that it would never come back and the earth would be forever shrouded in darkness. The returning sun was a cause for rejoicing and signified the end of the old year and the ushering in of the new.

And so, many different rituals and traditions evolved to welcome the Return of the Light. Past decades have seen a revival of some of  the old European earth-based religions such as Wicca, and there are many people today who honor the Winter Solstice with these old rituals.

The interesting thing is that many of these traditions have carried over, in some form or another, into our modern day Christmas customs.

The Burning of The Yule Log

Our current custom of decorating a Christmas tree may well stem from the venerated tradition of the Yule Log. For the Europeans the ceremonial burning of the Yule Log was a central element of the Winter Solstice festivities and it symbolized the blazing forth of the newborn sun.

In the old days, a log of oak was chosen early in the year and then kept in a special place. As the Solstice approached the log was brought inside and decorated with sacred evergreens. On the night of the Winter Solstice the Yule log would be lit with an unburned portion of the log from the previous year.

The log was burned for twelve hours, and in some traditions it stayed ablaze for twelve nights. People would gather around the Yule fire and tell stories, sing songs, and feast all night long. When the merry-making was over, the log was kept in the house all year and was thought to protect the home and everyone in it from illness and adversity.

At some point, as the European pagans were slowly converted to Christianity, the Yule log was replaced by an evergreen tree which was brought into the house and adorned with burning candles. The veneration of the sacred oak trees of the Druids was transformed into a belief in the sacredness of “God’s” evergreen tree.

Over time we have substituted the candles with strings of lights and ornaments.

Bringing Greenery Inside

Decorating the home with greenery at Christmas time is another custom reaching way back to the pre-Christian era. Holly, ivy, mistletoe, yew, and many other herbs and evergreens, each had their own magical significance representing the cycle of everlasting life. People would “deck the halls” to bring in good luck and to honor the nature spirits.

The Church Fathers actually tried to suppress this custom for a while, but obviously they failed miserably, and a good thing too because adorning your home with fresh greenery from the outdoors can do wonders to chase away the winter darkness doldrums.

People also made wreaths from these magical plants to symbolize the Wheel of the Year. Pagans celebrate the cyclic flow of the year at eight points during the year’s cycle. These included the Solstices and Equinoxes as well as 4 “cross-quarter” days that occur halfway between the Solstice and Equinox. So, that holiday wreath you have hanging on your door is essentially a symbol of the pagan year. In fact the word “Yule” means wheel.

Who Knew About The Mistletoe?

Kissing under the mistletoe is another tradition passed down to us from the Druids. This plant was sacred to the Druids who gathered it from the high branches of sacred oak trees with golden sickles. This mystical ritual was performed not only at Yule but also at the Summer Solstice, or Midsummer.  The winter mistletoe, with its white berries, was often made into an amulet of fertility.

The golden rootlets of the mistletoe symbolized the sun and its return to the northern world. Just exactly how the kissing ritual began is lost in the fog of history, but it probably had something to do with its magical properties of fertility, or maybe because people needed something to do during those long winter nights.

Baking cookies, pies and other confections is a much loved holiday tradition the world over. We all have own special recipes, and whether we bake them or buy them, eating delicious treats is a favorite part of wintertime merry-making.

To our pagan ancestors, to eat these specially baked and sweetened treats at Solstice time was to partake of the body of the Grain God/Goddess while ensuring “sweetness” in the year to come. Of course they did not have sugar in those days, but used honey as a sweetener. Luckily, there probably weren’t too many ancient European pagans that were vegans or they would have had to forego the treats.

Today and tonight, modern day pagans the world over will honor the Winter Solstice  with all night vigils and other rituals. If you want, you can make up your own rituals and traditions to celebrate and give thanks for the return of the light.

You don’t have to find an oak log to burn or stay up all night (although if you want to, by all means go ahead), but you can light candles throughout your home. Turn off the lights and say a prayer or sing a song in celebration.

Make a wish for the New Year. If you haven’t done it already, cut some fresh greenery from outdoors and bring it inside (shake out any bugs first though!) Bake some special holiday sweet treats and serve them to your friends and family. Sit around a fire, or even just a circle of candles, and share songs and stories.

If you’re feeling inspired and want to participate in a full on Winter Solstice ritual or learn more about pagan traditions, you’ll find can get  ideas in the many excellent books on the subject. One of my favorites is Sacred Celebrations by Glennie Kindred. Nowadays of course you can also find lots of resources online.

It can be pretty fascinating to delve into the origins of our holiday customs. Even our modern day Santa Claus figure is rooted in myths and stories that have been around for millennia. Today Christmas lights and bayberry candles have replaced burning Yule logs, and, though we no longer gather our mistletoe with sacred sickles, we still like to hang it up in the doorway and hope for kisses.

And every time I see a wreath of evergreens hanging on someone’s front door I smile to myself, knowing that, intentionally or not, the sacred Wheel of the Year is being honored.

A version of the above article appeared in The Arcata Eye in December 2004.


How about you? How do you celebrate the holiday season? Are some of these old rituals part of your December tradition?



2 Responses to Light Is Returning: Celebrate the Winter Solstice

  1. Hi Sarah,

    I got your tweet and know you from the A-List forums, but this is the first I’ve been to your blog. It’s beautiful and inviting — I love it and will be back for sure!

    I practice Jyotish (Vedic astrology) and today is also known as the beginning of Uttarayana, the return of the light. Don’t you just love this special time?

    Happy Solstice, Sarah, and thanks for the VERY informative article!

    (P.S. Are you sure you’re not an hour off on the time? I may be mistaken but I think it’s at 9:30p PST.)

    • Hi Patti, I’ so glad you made it over to the blog for a visit! Welcome! Glad you enjoyed the Solstice article, and that is so interesting about Uttarayana – I had not heard of that but I do know that this time of year is revered and celebrated in many cultures.

      And – oops – you’re absolutely right! Solstice occurred at 9:30 PST. I wrote that in the wee hours of the morning, a time when clearly I should not attempt complicated mathematical operations like subtraction! Will correct that right now.

      Happy Solstice!

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