Happy Winter Solstice/First Day of Winter, Everyone!! Today is the shortest day of the year and marks the beginning of the progression toward Spring and the re-awakening of the Earth as each day after today will be longer than the one before it, if only by a few seconds each day. The northern hemisphere of the Earth leans the furthest away from the sun today, putting the sun at its lowest point in the sky, closest to the equator, and your shadow will cling to you like a small child, reaching its smallest length of the year around noon. The South Pole will experience its only sun-lit, high noon of the year.
As the Solstice begins, the moon will be entering the New Moon phase in the sign of Capricorn. It is said that this is a great time to pull on the traits of Capricorn – such as resourcefulness, being disciplined, wise, ambitious – and positively utilize them as we focus on starting long-term goals and strive toward realistic dreams. New moon, new beginnings.
Many of the celebrations going on at this time of year – caroling, the giving of presents, kissing under the mistletoe, Christmas Holly – actually pre-date Christianity. Caroling was originally called wassailing, a practice the was used to spread blessings and good fortune to neighbors and/or a fertility ritual performed in the fields and orchards to ward off any spirits that could cause the crops of the coming spring and summer to fail. Wassailing was most often accompanied by drink, wassail, a spiced cider drink, which was believed to help ensure a healthy apple orchard crop.
The giving of presents around this time of year is usually associated with the Christian tradition of celebrating the birth of Jesus by emulating the three wise men that gave the gifts of frankincense, gold, and myrrh to the new baby Jesus. The Romans would give gifts to celebrate Saturnalia, the Roman celebration of their god Saturn, the god associated with agriculture. French nuns in the middle ages would celebrate St. Nicholas’s Eve by giving gifts of food and clothing to the poor.
Kissing under the mistletoe stems from ancient, pre-Christian, fertility rituals. Mistletoe was also hung as protection from fire and lightning in many homes. The mistletoe would be hung around this time of year to ward of such catastrophes and then left throughout the year until it was replenished with a new sprig the following year. This parasitic plant has also been known to represent luck when hung inside, near the entrance to the home.
Decorating with boughs of green also pre-dates Christianity, when the placement of holly branches ( and other evergreen plants) where reminders of the bounty of the earth that would come with the lengthening of the days (the return of the Sun). The Holly wood was believed to ward of evil spirits, as well, which is why it was incorporated into the darkest season of the year, when many believed evil spirits held more power. Holly branches are also said to be used in Christian traditions this time of year to represent the blood of Jesus as he died on the cross (the berries) and the crown of thorns placed upon his head (the thorny leaves of the holly plant).
This is one of the celebrations on the Wheel of the Year that I really enjoy because it reminds me that Spring is not too far away. I’m an equal opportunity participator of celebration. I love the Pagan ritual rites that happen this time of year because they represent life, community, tradition, connectedness and strength to me. I also love the Christmas rites because, for me at least, they represent tradition and community to me, too, as well as love. I have not delved into Hanukkah traditions, or Kwanzaa, or any other tradition, as of yet, and I may never do so. Time will tell as I walk down the path of self-education I have been following.
So, set those realistic long-term goals today, remember to love, ward yourself from the effects of the winter darkness by placing signs of life and growth in your home, and never forget that we are all one big community, needing each other, if only at least on a soul level, to thrive.