Tonight we celebrate the Winter Solstice, the longest night of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. As the earth spins, it also tilts on its axis. Tonight, the tilt is 23.5 degrees, placing the North Pole at its furthest distance from the Sun, which is directly over the Tropic of Capricorn. In the Southern Hemisphere, it is the Summer Solstice, and the Sun is closest to the South Pole. When it is our Summer Solstice here in the North, the sun is over the Tropic of Cancer and it is the southern Winter Solstice.
For several days around the solstice, the sun appears to hang in the same place in the sky. The word comes from the Latin sol or "sun" and stitatium or "stay." Ever since human beings first looked up, this night has been a special time of celebration. Every culure has a way of marking it. Originally, Christians celebrated only the Easter season, commemorating Christ's death and resurrection. But, when the Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, the Church incorporated a celebration of the birth of Jesus, called "the light of the world" into the celebrations of the return of the Sun's light. Many of our Christmas customs are related to more ancient traditions.
These include the burning of the Yule log, which is why Christmas is also called "Yuletide." This log would burn all night, and in Scandinavian cultures, a piece would be saved to use as kindling the following year. In Britain and Northern Europe, the log burned down to ashes, which could be kept under the bed to protect from lightning strikes. (Note to self: in light [sorry....!} of last week's post, this might be useful....)
The Romans celebrated Saturnalia, in honour of the god Saturn. It was twelve days of feasting, fire, food, and social upheaval when masters served their slaves and a criminal was appointed the king of the merrymaking. He would usually end up dead by the end, though....
The Germans believed that their god Odin flew through the night sky on his horse, deciding who would be blessed and cursed during the coming year. Some people would stay inside to hide from him.
We put holly and mistletoe in our wreaths because these plants are evergreen, surviving the winter, and our ancestors believed they had magical properties.
In modern times, the celebration of the Solstice is connected in many people's minds with Stonehenge in Wiltshire, England. More than three thousand people will travel to the stones for sunrise at 8:04 a.m. on Monday December 22nd. (At the Summer Solstice, there can be tens of thousands.)
Here in Toronto, Solstice celebrations centre around Kensington Market and its street festival, featuring a night-time parade through the neighbourhood with hundreds of people carrying lanterns and lights. SInce 1988, the festival of lights has included elements of Commedia Dell'Arte, clowning, street performance, masks, puppets and lanterns. Some Wiccans choose more personal celebrations, with bonfires and parties to welcome the coming of the light.
Whatever you do, and wherever you are, blessed be and wishing you light, love, and laughter.