Late dawn. Early sunset. Short day. Long night. For us in the Northern Hemisphere, the December solstice marks the longest night and shortest day of the year.
Winter Solstice, December 21st each year, celebrates the rebirth of the sun and the beginning of winter. It is one of the oldest winter celebrations known. Sources suggest winter solstice celebrations are rooted in ancient times for thousands and thousands of years. Throughout history, humans have observed this seasonal milestone and created spiritual and cultural traditions to celebrate the rebirth of sunlight after the darkest period of the year.
The word “solstice” is derived from two Latin words: “sol” (the sun) and “sistere” (to stand still), the Winter Solstice therefore means, “Sun stands still”. The celebration often referred to as Yule, marks the longest night and shortest day of the year, when the sun ceases its decline in the sky, and for three days thereafter seems to stand still and lie dormant on the horizon. After this, it once again begins its ascent into the northern skies and the days grow longer. Winter solstice marks the return of the brighter, lighter days.
On the year’s two solstices (winter and summer) the sun appears to halt in its journey across the sky and change little in position during this time. Of course, contrary to appearances from Earth, the sun’s “changing position” throughout the year is actually caused by the rotation of the Earth, as it circles the sun each year.
“There is a resurgent interest in more traditional religious groups that is often driven by ecological motives,” said Harry Yeide, a professor of religion at George Washington University. “These people do celebrate the solstice itself.”
Eastern churches traditionally celebrated Christmas on January 6, a date known as Epiphany in the West. The Gospels do not specify when Christ was born, so the date may have been originally chosen because of the belief that the season of Christ’s conception would be that same as that of his death and resurrection.
“As the Christmas celebration moved west,” Yeide said “the date that had traditionally been used to celebrate the winter solstice became sort of available for conversion to the observance of Christmas. In the Western church, the December date became the date for Christmas.”
Traditional solstice celebrations existed in many cultures. The Roman feast of Saturnalia, honoring the God Saturn, was a weeklong December feast that included the observance of the winter solstice. Romans also celebrated the lengthening of days following the solstice by paying homage to Mithra – an ancient Persian god of light.
Winter Solstice, celebrated thousands of years prior to Christianity endeavored Christian leaders of the time to attract pagans to their faith by adding Christian meaning to these existing festivals.
Within the Christian celebrations of Christmas we often hear of the “yule log”. The origin of the word Yule, has several suggested origins from the Old English word, geõla, the Old Norse word jõl, a pagan festival celebrated at the winter solstice, or the Anglo-Saxon word for the festival of the Winter Solstice, ‘Iul’ meaning ‘wheel’.
The overlap of winter solstice and Christmas tradition can be seen with the yule log. Playing an important role in the celebrations of the winter solstice and later Christmas, a large oak log was ceremoniously brought into the house and kindled at dusk, using a brand from the previous year’s Yule Log. It was deemed essential that the log, once lit, should burn until it was deliberately extinguished. The length of time, varied from region to region, from 12 hours to several days and it was considered ill-omened if the fire burnt itself out. It was never allowed to burn away completely, as some would be needed for the following year.
This year has been unique on so many levels. The winter Solstice is no different. This year it is the Great Conjunction as well.
The Great Conjunction is a rare and very special astrological event that happens every 20 years or so. It involves the meeting of both Jupiter and Saturn at the same degree of the zodiac.
For the last 200 years, the Great Conjunction has occurred almost always in earth signs, but now, on Dec. 21, 2020, both Jupiter and Saturn will align in the air sign of Aquarius.
2020 has been an explosive year in astrology, and it’s wrapping up with one of the most highly-anticipated aspects of the decade: The Great Conjunction in Aquarius, which some astrologers consider to mark the dawning of the “Age of Aquarius.” The Age of Aquarius brings a soul-shaking influx of energy that centres around your identity, Aquarius, and it will help you to define who you are and how you want to move through the world.
It is thought that although the overall goal of the Aquarian Age is to build community and restore hope and trust in the family of man, as an air sign it carries a strong mental energy that can lead to indifference, isolation, or hiding behind others to avoid the individual inner work needed to grow emotionally and spiritually.
On the darkest night of the year, when the sun stands still at winter solstice, the days slowly begin to contain more daylight. The great conjunction offers the mindfulness of self-expiry and how we wish to be. It is an opportunity to connect with the light within and our deepest desires and purpose. By taking some quiet, mindful time to ourselves we can align and become clearer of our inmost intentions for our body, mind, heart and life. We can celebrate the return and expansion of light within ourselves and around us. We can connect with ancestors of our world, celebrating diverse cultural heritage and learn about ancient and contemporary folkways. As we attune to cosmic, astronomical and natural cycles we can celebrate our membership in the community of all life, on our planet Earth.
While religious observance of the winter solstice is not as common as it once was, we can use this opportunity to go within, get mindfully clear and shed light on our own life. As well, many of us will surely give thanks for the slow but steady return of the sun’s warmth and light.