The Winter Solstice is one of my favorite magical times of the year. It is the time of the longest night, but also the moment when the sun returns and begins to light our way through the winter darkness.
The Meaning of the Winter Solstice
The word solstice means “sun stand still”. Unlike the hectic, commercial, and consumer-driven holiday season of our modern world, the Winter Solstice was traditionally recognized as a time of stillness, peace, and rest, as well as rebirth and renewal.
Every December, usually between the 20th and the 23rd of the month, our ancestors honored the return of the sun, taking comfort in the knowledge that the longest night would now be behind them, and the days would begin to grow ever longer in the months to come.
The Winter Solstice is also the time of year when the “magical child” of many spiritual traditions is born (or reborn) into the world, bringing with him the return of light and hope. The Greeks celebrated the birth of Attis, consort of the great mother goddess Cybele. The early Romans celebrated the birth of the sun god Mithras. And, of course, Christians around the world continue to celebrate the birth of Jesus to this day. In all of these traditions, there are many parallels between the return of the son and the return of the sun. In fact, in the later Roman Empire, December 25th (now Christmas Day) was declared to be the birth date of Sol Invictus, the “unconquered sun”, well before it was designated as the birthday of Jesus Christ.
With all that said, it will come as no surprise that many of our modern Yule and Christmas traditions originated with the Winter Solstice celebrations of the Celts and Druids in pre-Christian Ireland and Britain.
The Ancient Origins of Modern Traditions
The Celts believed that the sun stood still for a period of several days around the Winter Solstice, so they would light a solstice fire–which would later become the Yule log–to keep the darkness at bay. Fire and light are equally important to the Winter Solstice, as they both symbolize the return of the light, and the warmth of the summer to come.
To further honor the light, the Celts would decorate evergreen trees with solar symbols, such as candles, and gifts for the gods and goddesses. Other evergreens, such as holly, mistletoe, ivy, and fir boughs were brought indoors, both to decorate the home and to honor nature and the life force that sustains it, through the harsh winter months.
The red berries of the holly bush symbolized life (and later, Christ’s blood) and offered protection against evil spirits. The Druids would twist holly sprigs into crowns to wear for good luck. In addition, the Celts honored a powerful nature spirit called the Holly King, who is connected to the Green Man, the gods Gwyn, Cernunnos and Herne, as well as the Green Knight of Arthurian legend. The Celts believed that the Holly King ruled winter and the dark half of the year, helping to kindle the heat and fire of the earth, and keeping the life force flowing and strong through this cold and dark time.
Mistletoe, also known as the Golden Bough, is another important plant at the Winter Solstice. It was sacred to the Druids, often called “the herb of the Druids”, and was used for magical workings, fertility rites, and healing throughout the year. The Druids would spend the day of the Winter Solstice gathering clusters of mistletoe from oak trees, which were sacred to the god of the sun. Mistletoe continues to play a role in our modern holiday celebrations. Many people still hang a sprig above a doorway in our homes, for luck and for kissing beneath (perhaps in a nod to its ancient fertility magic!).
I love that we can trace these holiday rituals and customs so far back into the mists of time. Taking a moment to tune into the original meaning and significance of our Winter Solstice, Yule, and Christmas celebrations gives me a special sense of connection to my ancestors, and all those who have gone before.
As the holiday season approaches, try to make a little time each day (or whenever you can steal a few moments to yourself) to simply be still and silent, and connect with the original energy of the Winter Solstice. In doing so, we can gain a deeper understanding of what the return of the sun and the light must have truly meant to our ancestors: warmth, abundant food, and gratitude for their close-knit communities and shared resources. To help you connect with this energy, I offer you the following excerpt from an old Gaelic blessing:
Deep peace of the running wave to you;
Deep peace of the flowing air to you;
Deep peace of the quiet earth to you;
Deep peace of the shining stars to you;
Deep peace of the gentle night to you;
Moon and stars pour their healing light on you.
However you choose to honor this sacred day in the calendar, I wish you the deep peace of the season. May your holidays be a celebration of life, light, family and friends.