On December 21, the sun will stand still. Ok, not really. But that is what is meant by the Latin word “solstice.” Actually, the Northern Hemisphere’s winter solstice marks the moment the sun shines at its most southern point. It is the beginning of winter and the shortest day of the year. Sounds dreary, doesn’t it? But there is a silver lining. As Celtic tradition describes it, the weeks leading up to the winter solstice are filled with “long, cold nights,” where “Earth’s very breath seems to falter in the face of the overpowering dark.” And then, on December 21, “imperceptibly at first,” the sun begins to conquer the dark “and all of creation begins to exhale.”
Any day that you can get “all of creation to exhale” must be auspicious indeed! It is a day not to despair over the coming cold, but to welcome back the sun. How do you celebrate an occasion like that?
You could travel to England to visit Stonehenge. A World Heritage Site, Stonehenge is the most architecturally sophisticated prehistoric stone circle in the world. No one is really sure why it was built probably 4,500 years ago, but it is widely accepted that the stones are specifically aligned with the movements of the sun. In fact, the winter solstice is one of only two days of the year when the sun casts a “line of sunlight connecting the alter stone, the slaughter stone and the heel stone.” If you really want to do it right, you need to show up with your cow and your wine. Slaughter the one and drink the other to mark the start of the new year. But be prepared for crowds. Masses of “neo-druid and neo-pagan pilgrims” flock to Stonehenge on the winter solstice in part because access to the stones themselves is free and without restriction.
Not thrilled about spending thousands of dollars to ship yourself and your cow to the United Kingdom? There are other options.
In the past, many Scandinavians would simply light a fire. The flames symbolize the “heat, light, and life-giving properties of the returning sun.” But it’s not just any fire. A Yule (or Juul) log was produced with great ceremony and “burned on the hearth in honor of the Scandinavian god, Thor.” But be prepared. According to tradition, you need to keep a piece of the log as both a token of good luck and as kindling for next year’s log.
In other countries, the Yule log was burned until nothing but ash remained. But, of course it doesn’t end there. Once fully burned, you need to collect the ashes and either scatter them on your fields as fertilizer every night or keep them as “a charm or useful medicine.” Word has it too that if you keep the ashes under your bed, they will protect your house against thunder and lightning, and prevent chilblains (not to be confused with frostbite or trench foot) on your heels during the winter!
In Persia (now Iran), it was believed that people must celebrate the solstice by staying awake all night long in order to welcome the new morning sun. But Yalda night is not a time for fasting. According to tradition, if you begin winter by eating summer fruits you will not get sick during the cold season! So break out the watermelon. And pomegranates too. They must be “placed on top of a fruit basket,” to remind us “of the cycle of life–the rebirth and revival of generations. The purple outer covering of a pomegranate symbolizes birth or dawn, and their bright red seeds the glow of life.”
There are many other winter solstice traditions that developed around the world, but a few in particular might be feel a bit more familiar. Celtics used to use fill their homes with evergreens because they symbolize life, rebirth and renewal. And holly “was thought to capture or ward off evil spirits before they could enter a home and cause harm.” And many traditions involve a “Yule Tree” filled with “natural ornaments” and even “garlands of popcorn and berries.”
Ultimately, many of our traditions evolved as a result of our ancestors’ reaction to the splendor, and terror, of our natural world. So whether you celebrate Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanzaa or some other tradition entirely, embrace the spirit of the solstice. We may be so bold as to suggest that you stave off the dark by filling your home with the warm glow of our Finally Light Bulbs with Tesla Technology. Either way, we urge you to remember that this season is a harbinger of new life and all the new experiences and joys a new year – and a new sun – hold. So when the sun stands still, hide your cows, throw your Yule ashes, grab some watermelon and take a moment exhale.
Merry Winter Solstice!