For many of us, though, it’s already been cold for at least a month, or at least cold on and off, maybe since as early as October or September. (Or whatever passes for winter-like weather where you live!) For some, it has already snowed. A lot. So really, the calendar may mark today as the ‘First Day of Winter’, but that is mostly a psychological thing, man’s need to trick himself into believing Mother Nature is not completely in control. (Sure she isn’t!)
Technically, winter solstice occurs exactly when the axial tilt of a planet’s polar hemisphere is farthest away from the star that it orbits. (Wikipedia) For those of us in the northern hemisphere, that was Thursday, December 22, 2011 at 12:30 A.M. EST. While winter solstice is actually more of an instant in time, it is a term more commonly used to describe the day with the shortest number of daylight hours and longest night in the year.
Historically, the winter solstice appears to have had significance is many cultures, with some evidence dating back as far as the Neolithic era, specifically the Goseck Circle in Germany, which is a set of concentric ditches carved into the earth with opening “gates” that line up with where the sun rises and sets on the solstice. Pottery fragments and other artifacts found at the site date it circa 4900 BCE.
More famously, Stonehenge, in England, whose exact purpose remains shrouded in mystery and speculation, would appear to include allowing prediction of the solstice, equinox and other celestial events. Archaeologists estimate it was built anywhere from 3000 BC to 2000 BC.
Similar sites throughout the world, including North and South America, point to how important the movement of the sun and the changing of the seasons was to ancient people.
In modern times we are typically less worried about the starvation that might set in over the winter. Modern grocery stores and the ability to obtain food from all over the world certainly cuts down on our need to have spent the summer and fall stockpiling our food reserves. So, Winter Solstice, as an occasion, is not necessarily our last great feast before winter sets in and most of our ancient superstitions about the solstice have been forgotten through the centuries.
The tradition of Winter Solstice is not completely forgotten however. Many modern traditions and religions honor the day. From the website www.timeanddate.com:
In Poland the ancient December solstice observance prior to Christianity involved people showing forgiveness and sharing food. It was a tradition that can still be seen in what is known as Gody. In the northwestern corner of Pakistan, a festival called Chaomos, takes place among the Kalasha or Kalash Kafir people. It lasts for at least seven days, including the day of the December solstice. It involves ritual baths as part of a purification process, as well as singing and chanting, a torchlight procession, dancing, bonfires and festive eating.
Many Christians celebrate St Thomas’ Day in honor of St Thomas the Apostle on December 21. In Guatemala on this day, Mayan Indians honor the sun god they worshipped long before they became Christians with a dangerous ritual known as the polo voladore, or “flying pole dance”. Three men climb on top of a 50-foot pole. As one of them beats a drum and plays a flute, the other two men wind a rope attached to the pole around one foot and jump. If they land on their feet, it is believed that the sun god will be pleased and that the days will start getting longer. Some churches celebrate St Thomas’ Day on other days in the year.
The ancient Incas celebrated a special festival to honor the sun god at the time of the December solstice. In the 16th century ceremonies were banned by the Roman Catholics in their bid to convert the Inca people to Christianity. A local group of Quecia Indians in Cusco, Peru, revived the festival in the 1950s. It is now a major festival that begins in Cusco and proceeds to an ancient amphitheater a few miles away.
One of my favorite interpretations of Winter Solstice is the Season of Light. Celebrating the return of light to the world. I have been watching the days get shorter and shorter this year, watching the night arrive earlier and earlier. While I am generally a night owl, I can feel the early darkness kind of dragging me down. Perhaps its like I mention in my post You Are What You Think, this kind of dwelling on the darkness getting into my mindset and getting me down. I am ready for the light.
This as a time for letting go of the past, moving out of the darkness and into the light. This is a good practice for anyone, regardless of your spiritual path, regardless of the flavor of your religion. Let go of the past, let go of regrets, grudges, resentment and anger. Forgive. Forgive others, forgive yourself. You can symbolically let go of these negative feelings weighing you down by writing them down, venting all your hurt, stress, distress and anger, then burn the paper (safely please!), let the ashes float away into the darkness. Tomorrow the light returns and the future looks a little brighter.