The Winter Solstice this year fell on 22nd December, with the sun rising at 8.17 and setting at 15.58, making this the shortest day and longest night of the year. Another title for this day is Midwinter.
A Bit of Science
Because of the fact that the earth has a natural tilt and orbits the sun, there are four key sun festivals. These are – Winter Solstice (19-23 December), Spring Equinox (19-23 March), Summer Solstice (19-23 June) and Autumn Equinox (19-23 September) – dates refer to the northern hemisphere. In the southern hemisphere the Solstices and the Equinoxes are the opposite way round – Australia has just experienced its Summer Solstice.
The word solstice comes from the Latin – 2 words sol meaning sun, and sistere meaning to stand still. The word equinox also comes from the Latin and means equal night. At the spring and autumn equinoxes therefore there is a date on which the length of day and night are exactly equal. However, at the solstices there is the greatest difference in length of night and day – the longest day occurring in the summer, and the shortest day in the winter. In winter on this day the sunlight is very weak and appears low in the sky. In some places above the Arctic Circle there will be perpetual night with no obvious sunrise at all for the days of the solstice.
How people have interpreted this
The Celtic peoples – from whom much of our pagan worship and rural traditions stem – only recognised two seasons – summer and winter, with summer beginning at the spring equinox and ending at the autumn equinox, followed by winter. This was the reason for the rise of the term Midsummer and Midwinter being given to the two solstices. Religiously and spiritually, however, the two solstices are of great importance as sun festivals.
The winter solstice, occurring as it does at the dark time of the year, was always considered very important as it signified the return of the sun. Many traditions celebrated this event with stories and folklore. In many religions this time celebrated the mythical and magical birth of gods and goddesses of light – eg Frigga, or Freya gave birth to Baldur – the son of light in the Norse religion; Horus – the Egyptian sun god from Ancient Egypt; Lucia the goddess of light is honoured across Europe. These were important as they would ensure a return to the warmer times and if honoured correctly and sufficiently would help to ensure good crop yields.
I have just celebrated the Winter Solstice with my family, choosing to do the big winter get together then rather than at Christmas. We enjoyed a meal together, exchanged meaningful gifts and welcomed the new year together. The house was decorated with natural borrowed branches from locally grown native trees and lit with candles. It was great to step away from the commercialisation of the Christmas machine. After all the Christian message is all about banishing darkness by the miraculous birth of the light of the world, a sun god or the son of god – really not so far away from Persephone coming out from the dark world of the dead to offer light, health and hope; or Amerterasu, the Japanese sungoddess being born to shine light into peoples’ lives.
Whatever you call this time, and whatever you choose to celebrate enjoy good times with your loved ones, remember those who may be lonely, cold and denied a bed (like Mary and Joseph) and perhaps give accordingly of your time or your finances or your love. Winter solstice blessings to all. As the days begin to lengthen and the temperatures begin to rise may the ideas which have been germinating over the dark winter turn towards the sun, grow and flourish. Here’s to an active, happy and fulfilling 2020.