In the Northern Hemisphere, the Winter Solstice occurs between December 19 and December 23. Most calendars mark it at December 21, but it does move around a bit as celestial events are wont to do. (In the Southern Hemisphere, the Winter Solstice occurs around June 21.)The Earth tilts on its axis and brings one hemisphere of the Earth closer to the Sun. The days begin to grow incrementally longer and the nights shorter, and continue doing so until the Summer Solstice (on or about June 21 in the Northern Hemisphere and on or about December 21 in the Southern Hemisphere), at which point days begin to shorten again. The Winter Solstice marks the shortest day and the longest night of the year.
The symbolic rebirth of the Earth that begins with the slowly lengthening days following Winter Solstice has a central place in many myth cycles, where themes of death and rebirth are common. Among the Celts and other Northern European cultures, Yule marked the rebirth of the Sun God or Sun King who had been sacrificed at Samhain, in October. Modern NeoPagans and Wiccans continue this theme, seeing Yule as the time when the Goddess gives birth to the Sun Child, who will grow to be her consort in the spring. People have recognized the significance of this for centuries, in diverse cultures and a myriad of ways. We find echoes of these practices in the Christmas traditions many of us grew up with, as the symbolism of the rebirth of the Sun at Solstice was easily grafted onto the Christian symbolism of the birth of the Son.
For those who practice Feminist Goddess worship, Yule (sometimes called Lucina, or “return of the light”) marks the time when the Crone Goddess calls us to go within and explore our own inner darkness, even as we welcome the slowly returning light.
The long night of Solstice promises that the dark times are soon to end — that we have been through the darkest period and survived. It also promises that even in the darkest night, there is a spark of light. All-night vigils by candle or firelight were common features of Yule celebrations in years past, and many modern people continue the tradition today. Leaving a lit candle in the window or a low fire burning on the hearth are ways to bring this tradition into modern life. The evergreen tree that would become such a central symbol of Christmas also has its roots (pun intended) in Yule. Celts and other Northern Europeans decorated trees both outdoors and indoors to symbolize that life persists even in the cold of winter.
Cultures around the world and across history have marked the Solstices as important days of power. It is thought that the stone circle at Stonehenge was designed to mark the Solstices, as the sunrise on that day shines through the arched stones in a way it does at no other time. Other Winter Solstice holidays included the Roman Saturnalia, the Scandinavian Juul, the Feast of St. Thomas, and the Polish Gody. The Solstice was (and in some cases still is) celebrated throughout the Americas and South Asia, too!
**MHG Editor’s Note: Susan is teaching a wonderful, seasonal course called Joyful Yule on Mystery School of the Goddess and it is free!