It is nature's promise that the darkest days always beget light. So it will be when the winter solstice, which will occur on December 21 at 19:23 UT, brings its dim light to a world which has suffered greatly in this season of Samhain.
As our sun reaches the southernmost point of its journey, this hemisphere will see its shortest day of light. At the instant when the sun begins its northward journey, the solstice will occur and every day after will be longer than the one before it until the summer solstice, when again, the light will begin to diminish.
This eternal cycle of the sun's birth, death and rebirth is a basis for many of the world's most fundamental mythological beliefs. Just as these beliefs have grown from a natural event, so the symbols that cluster around the solstice have grown from the nature-worshipping peoples who populated this planet thousands of years ago.
For those who subscribe to a Celtic belief, the bitterly cold fingers of the Cailleach have ripped at our hearts this year. The swirling decay of Samhain has challenged and in too many cases, taken, our lives. More often than in most years, we look for a light in the darkness, a light that will grow and renew the hopes of our minds and our souls.
For that light and for the arms of its comfort, we need look no further. Solstice is almost upon us. Let us examine the symbols, the beliefs, which accompany our contemporary December festival to rediscover the ancient ideas and truths that are our inheritance:
Solstice: The moment when the old solar year dies and the Goddess gives birth to the Divine child (the new solar year) is known as the winter solstice. Known by different names, the Goddess and her sun-child were celebrated throughout ancient Mesopotamia, Persia and Europe, including the druidic celebration of Alban Arthan and the Roman Saturnalia. In many lands, monuments such as Bru na Boinne, the passage-grave Newgrange in Ireland, were erected to guide light into an inner chamber possibly offering resurrection to the souls interred there.
Yule: Thought to derive from the Norse word Iul, meaning "wheel," the arrival of the Yule season marks the death and impending rebirth of the vegetative season.
Yule log: By bringing the pagan bonfire indoors, we are able to enjoy the warmth, power and light of the element of fire while lending strength to the solar child born at solstice.
Ashes of the Yule log: The tradition of saving the ashes or remnants of the Yule log is an old fertility custom. By saving the ashes or the last sheaf of grain from the harvest until the next year, our ancestors were able to carry the success and health of the previous year into the next. The same can still be done with Yule logs, remnants from Christmas candles and gifts from the garden.
Christmas: Greco-Roman worship of the god Dionysus/Bacchus evolved into the mystery-cult that became Christianity. Christianity named its sun-child, Jesus Christ, and in approximately 273 AD set his birthdate to coincide with the birth of the other mid-winter gods. The creative act of the Goddess' birth of the sun-child at mid-winter became the Christian nativity story.
Christmas Trees: The tradition of decorating and venerating trees is a primordial human practice. The Christmas tree represents the World Tree, whose branches support the sun, moon and stars and whose roots reach deeply under the fabric of our world, bridging the worlds of god and human. The worship of trees is a faith as old as mankind itself. The earliest evergreen solstice trees were thought to have been fir trees.
Tree ornaments: The placement of representative objects upon vegetative matter such as a tree, or a bush is a form of imitative magic full of meaning. The power and placement of the object is thought to enhance the health or provide whatever attribute the seeker desires.
The first "ornaments" were thought to be fruits, nuts and confections in the hope of speeding the return of the growing seasons of spring and summer. Many of the old blown-glass style ornaments we see today are of powdered fruit, bunches of grapes and the like.
The common highly reflective ball ornaments are representative of the "witch's ball," which reflects evil back toward them who would send it. The reflective quality of these ornaments, some with faceted indentations, catches and reflect back the light of the newly-born sun.
The star atop the Christmas tree is the five-pointed star of the early nature religions. The star represents the unity of the four elements and cardinal directions along with the place of spirit, the fifth direction, the sacred Otherworld. Another tree topper, the angel, is the Great Goddess herself.
The shiny, hanging "icicles" hung from Christmas trees are also known as "rain." As rain, or water is essential to any kind of life, the decoration that we now call tinsel was once a potent form of fertility magic. Any object, be it humble or highly decorative, brings good luck when hung on the sacred World Tree by a caring household.
Evergreen boughs: Wreaths and swags of holly and evergreen are reminders of the evergreen nature of the soul and the constantly regenerative duel of the Holly and the Oak King at the winter solstice. The decoration of homes with evergreen branches figured prominently in the Roman celebration of Saturnalia.
Christmas lights: The "lights in the dark" of the solstice season return to us year after year as the lights strung about Christmas trees and about our houses providing a sense of mystery and peace as we watch them twinkle quietly.
Santa Claus: Long before the creation of "Saint Nicholas," there were the potent male figures of Pan, Cerunnos, Wodin/Odin, Zeus and Nik. With the advent of Christianity, these powerfully creative figures were diminished or demonized. Pan and Cerunnos, with their hoofs and curling horns became demonized as the Christian devil known as "Old Nik." Their power would not be forgotten though, and "Old Nik" evolved into a jolly old elf named Santa Claus. Their potency can also be glimpsed in the not-often seen spirit of the Greenman. Interestingly, the churches of the Christian Saint Nicholas are often built upon the ruined sites of temples to these earlier gods.
Visit from Santa Claus: The Norse god Odin (or Wodin) rode upon his eight-legged steed Sleipnir to test the civility of his people. He punished the undeserving and rewarded with gifts those who maintained the laws of civility. Much the same, the Greek god Zeus traveled the skies on his magical flying horse, again visiting and enforcing the laws of hospitality. The visits of Saint Nicholas are thought to have their origins in these early myths as well as Nordic and Germanic traditions. St. Nicholas in his flying sleigh, drawn by eight flying reindeer, doles out gifts to the deserving and alas, but a lump of coal to those who are not. Our tradition of gift-giving is also influenced by that practice during the Roman festival of Saturnalia. Much later, the Christianity attributed this characteristic of the December festival to the Three Wise Men of the Christian nativity myth.
Mistletoe: "All Heal" or mistletoe is sacred to those of Druidic persuasion and it figured prominently in their winter celebration of Alban Arthan. Mistletoe grows upon oak, the great tree of the Oak King. The Oak King, lord of the waxing year in the guise of a robin, slays the wren of the Holly King, lord of the waning year at the winter solstice.
Candy canes: The earliest trees were decorated with confections and these colourful canes replicate on a tiny scale the great red and white beribboned Maypoles found at Beltaine. Like so many other symbols, these too are concerned with survival and well-being and are meant to bring the seeker good luck and fertility.
These deceptively simple, but powerful, symbols are the gifts of those who lived their lives before us -- in times of joy as well as anguish, much as we live now. In this dark time look to their light, to the ancient patterns which richly illuminate our lives. Happy Solstice to you, may the peace of the season be ours.