( I made a mistake. I thought the Solstice was today, but it was yesterday. Oh, well. I totally stole this article from Cross-Quarters, but since I wrote it in the first place, I guess I can. I don’t know when that website will go defunct since the group is disbanded. * le sigh* I miss those women.)
Gather round children, and I will tell you a story. Several stories, really, all about the magic of winter solstice, the time when the sun is reborn. There are many stories of winter solstice, and it is an ancient feast.
The winter solstice seems to be a time for the peoples of the northern hemisphere to get together, feast, and gift each other. Of course, in the Christian tradition, there is Christmas, which celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ. Chanukah occurs around this time also in the Jewish tradition. Ramadan occasionally falls during this time, and although it is a time of fasting, there is a really big celebration at the end of the month-long fast. Gifts are also given at that time, especially to children.1 But man was celebrating at or around the winter solstice long before Christ was born, the oil lasted eight days, or Muhammad was a twinkle in his daddy’s eye.
The oldest known man-made structure is Newgrange in Ireland.2 It is a deep, cave-like passage tomb, whose roof-box over the entrance lights the passage and chamber of the tomb at sunrise for five days around the winter solstice. The structure is estimated to date to 3200 BCE, making it almost a millennium older than the pyramids in Egypt. Especially in the northern-most reaches of the northern hemisphere, the winter solstice was obviously an important date, a sign that the sun would return, and the earth would not be barren forever. A similar, but slightly younger structure has been found at Maeshowe on the Orkney Islands of Scotland.3
The ancient Egyptians believed that god/man savior Osiris was entombed on the winter solstice. The ancient Greeks celebrated the day as Lenaea, the Festival of the Wild Women, when the Maenads left their homes to dance wildly in the mountains in honor of the wine god Dionysus. One could say the season of the solstice is still a Bacchanal, but nowadays the women are only wild with shopping and getting ready for the day.
The ancient Romans had many feasts around the time of the solstice. The feast of Juno Lucina was celebrated in early December, and later became incorporated into Christianity as the feast of St. Lucy or Santa Lucia, as our Swedish friends know her. On that day, the eldest daughter gets up very early, makes coffee and lussiekatter or Lucia Buns for the rest of the family, and then serves it to them in bed, wearing a wreath of candles on her head.
Other Roman festivals included Saturnalia, the feast of Saturn, and the Feast of Sol Invictus, which celebrated the nativity of such god-men/saviors as Appolo, Attis, Baal, Dionysus, Helios, Hercules, Horus, Mithra, Osiris, Perseus, and Theseus. Not to mention Christ, who had been born by the time this festival was instituted in the third century CE.
Ancient Druids celebrated Alban Arthuran, the time the sun god went into the underworld to learn the secrets of life and death, and to bring out the souls to be reincarnated. The Holly King and the Oak King battle at the solstices. At Winter Solstice, the Holly King dies, and the Oak King is reborn.
Holly is a symbol of the winter solstice because of its evergreen nature. One can easily believe that the carol, The Holly and the Ivy, was around long before the solstice became Christmas. It has a nice, Druidic feel to it. The Druids and Vikings also started the custom of using mistletoe in the winter solstice celebration. The Viking story is that Balder’s mother Frigga dreamed that he would die,and so went and begged all the plants and animals on earth not to kill him. Balder was teased because his mother was hovering around so close, and so his enemy Loki, convinced the mistletoe that because it didn’t have its own roots, (it’s a parasite on trees) that it wasn’t obligated to the promise not to kill. Loki shot Balder with an arrow poisoned by the mistletoe. Frigga cried so hard, her tears turned the red berries of the mistletoe white, and revived Balder. She was so happy she went around kissing everyone while holding the mistletoe.4
The Slavic lands also had their ancient celebrations in the dead of winter. Saule 5, a Slavic Sun-Goddess, was reborn as the morning star at winter solstice. She is pictured as a red apple, setting in the west. Other stories say she sleeps in an apple tree. When she is sad, she sits in her garden, and cries tears of amber, the sun stone.
Freya 6 also is associated with amber and the winter solstice. It is said she comes in her ice ship, pulled by golden cats, bringing food and gifts to help her people survive. She cries tears of amber when she sees how hungry they are in the dead of winter.
Rozhanitza 7 s a goddess from Russia and eastern Europe also associated with the winter solstice. She is often pictured with her goddess daughter, who is sometimes human and sometimes a reindeer. Often she is pictured wearing horns. Reindeer are the only deer in which the female also has horns. Her feast is on December 26th, and it is traditional to serve white iced reindeer cookies at that time for luck.
The last gift-bringer I will tell you of is La Befana. 8 La Befana lived in Italy, and was busy cleaning her house when some wise men came by looking for directions to the Child of Wonder. The new year was coming, and it was very important, so La Befana didn’t go with the wise men to seek the Child of Wonder when she was invited. Later, she had a change of heart, and gathered up some gifts for the Child of Wonder, but by that time it had begun to snow, and she couldn’t find the footsteps of the wise men. And so it is that La Befana wanders the world on New Year’s Eve, leaving gifts for all the children, just in case one of them is the Child of Wonder. And aren’t all children a Wonder, after all?
Well, that’s all the stories for now. There are many other stories and feasts associated with the winter solstice. Perhaps, another time we can tell those stories.
The images in this article are used with the kind permission of the artist, Joanna Colbert Powell. Thank you, Joanna. You may purchase 8×10 prints of these images at her website, http://www.jpc-artworks.com/gallery/wintersolstice/index.html She also has solstice e-cards available on the website.
- Ramadan on the Net, Eid-ul-Fitr, http://holidays.net/ramadan/eid.htm
- Knowth.com Newgrange, Ancient Passage Tomb, http://www.knowth.com/newgrange.htm
- Religious Tolerance.org, Winter Solstice Celebrations, http://www.religioustolerance.org/winter_solstice.htm
- How Stuff Works, How Mistletoe Works,http://christmas.howstuffworks.com/mistletoe2.htm
- Winter Solstice Galley, Saule and the Golden Apples of the Sun, http://www.jpc-artworks.com/gallery/wintersolstice/saule.html
- Helen Farias, The Ice Ship, a Story of the Lightbringer for the Advent of the Sun. Published by Waverly Fitzgerald in the School of the Seasons.
- Winter Solstice Gallery, Rozhanitza, http://www.jpc-artworks.com/gallery/wintersolstice/rozhy.html
- Wikipedia, La Befana,http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/La_Befana