Many years ago I read in the Oxford Companion to the Year that December 21 was when the Romans celebrated Angerona, the goddess who advocates for silence with her finger to her lips. The connection between the shortest day of the year and silence intrigued me and led me to develop my favorite Solstice ritual: I spend the day in silence and without using any electricity. I don’t watch television or listen to the radio or work on my computer. I don’t turn on the lights. I don’t answer my phone. At dusk, I go for a long walk in the park near my home. At night, I light candles, take a bubble bath, and go to bed early. I love the way this practice places me inside a delicious pool of quiet and serenity, allowing me to move more slowly and to listen to my own thoughts and feelings more closely. My other Winter Solstice tradition is to host a Solstice party on the Sunday closest to Solstice. Continue reading
This Roman holiday is sometimes viewed as the pagan version of Christmas, even though it was certainly being acknowledged long before the Biblical events that are celebrated around the time of the Winter Solstice.
Saturnalia, as it was practiced in Rome for centuries before the birth of Christ, has many elements found in other end-of-year rituals, including Hanukkah and Twelfth Night. This seven-day festival, which begins on December 17, was a time when courts did not meet and war could not be declared, so it was a time outside of time, like the Halcyon Days. Continue reading
Alcyone was the daughter of Aeolus, the god of winds. She was so happy in her marriage with Ceyx, son of the Morning Star, that they called themselves Zeus and Hera (surely not the couple that comes to mind when searching Greek mythology for an example of a happy marriage).
At any rate, this made Zeus mad and he struck down the ship on which Ceyx was sailing with a thunderbolt. When her husband’s ghost appeared before her, Alcyone threw herself into the sea and drowned. Some pitying god transformed them both into kingfishers. Continue reading
For Christians, the four weeks before Christmas are a special time called Advent (from the Latin for “to come”), a time spent anticipating the birth of the Son of God. Choosing this date to honor this moment was not accidental. For centuries, people had been eagerly anticipating the Winter Solstice and the arrival of the Sun at the same time of the year. Whether waiting for the birth of a divine child or the rebirth of the Sun, this is a time of anticipation in the darkness of winter.
Different customs help Christians count the days until Christmas: Advent calendars have a new little window to be opened each day; adding a piece of straw every day to the manger in the nativity scene; and the lighting of candles on an Advent wreath.
You can also create your own customs to mark the four Sundays before Christmas or Winter Solstice. I inherited one of my favorite Advent customs from my friend, Helen Farias, who wrote stories based on winter gods and goddesses. She suggested reading one on each of the four Sundays before Christmas while sipping on warming holiday drinks, nibbling on traditional holiday cookies, and lighting the next candle on the Advent wreath. Continue reading
Winter solstice is the midnight of the year. Throughout the ages, in an act that reverberates with sympathetic magic, it is the time when we all gather on the longest night of the year, in the season of deepest darkness, to celebrate the return of the light. We light beseeching fires and revel in the undying light within that is kindled anew.
Winter Solstice arrives at 9.30 tonight here in Portland, Oregon. It’s time to decorate the house with greenery, light candles, burn fires, and take down the old mistletoe (if you leave it up all year like we do) to replace with a fresh sprig. The ritual of hanging mistletoe recalls the Norse myth about the death of Balder and of his resurrection, brought about by the love of his mother Freya. Love conquers death.
Once upon a time, the cycle of the seasons – the turning of the year itself – was viewed as a sacred manifestation of the mysterious power of the universe: something to closely attend to, learn from and participate in. And so it is that we continue to celebrate the birth of light on the darkest night of the year. That’s magic!
Here’s a marvelous poem by Susan Cooper that was first brought to our attention by our friends at Portland Revels.
The Shortest Day
And 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 lighted candles in the winter trees;
They hung their homes with evergreen;
They burned beseeching fires all night long
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 now so do we, here, now,
This year and every year.