Winter Solstice

winter solstice3The returning of the sun in the northern hemisphere at Winter Solstice has been celebrated by various religions for thousands of years. Over that time the holiday has evolved into what we recognize as Christmas or Yule today.

One of the earliest recorded winter festivals took place in Egypt and it marked the birth of the Egyptian God Horus on December 25th. In ancient Rome, December 25th was the birth of the sun god Mithras and the ending of the feast of Saturnalia. Many of our current customs come from this festival. Decorating our homes with evergreens (symbolizing life’s continuity); the lighting of bonfires and candles to welcome the returning light and to ward off the spirits of darkness; parades, parties, family feasts and gift giving were all part of this feast that we use in our Christmas and Yule celebrations.

In the British Isles, one Celtic story depicts Winter Solstice as the rebirth of the Oak King who rules the light half of the year and his defeat of the Holly King who rules the dark half of the year.

Contrary to popular opinion the actual date of the birth of Jesus is not known. It is thought that he was born in spring or early summer as that is when the shepherds would be in the fields. They would not have been in the fields in December. The very early Church did not celebrate his birth at all. When Constantine became Emperor of Rome in 323 c.e., and made Christianity the state religion, the Church adopted December 25th as Jesus’ birthday. It became known as Christmas or Christ’s Mass. This was a very savvy political move as it encouraged the people to adopt the new State religion without having to give up the very popular celebration of Saturnalia or the birth of the Sun God Mithras who was known as the unconquered one. They simply exchanged Mithras with Jesus until Mithras was totally forgotten. Thus Christmas is really one of the newer forms of the old religions to share a winter celebration.

Native Americans have for centuries celebrated both the Winter and Summer Solstice. Winter solstice rites include…prayerstick making, retreats, altars, and prayers for increase. Celebrations may include the Bear Dance, the Feather Dance or the Navajo Night Chant.

Where did some of our other cherished symbols of the season come from?

Santa Claus: There are many names and different cultures around the world that have contributed to the Santa that we know today. He is associated with the Norse God, Odin who was the father of the Viking gods. Although he is a god of war and death, there are some characteristics that were transferred to Santa. He could materialize and vanish at will. He is also said to hold magic in his hand. Father Christmas was a traditional figure during the Pagan celebration of the Winter Solstice. Instead of bringing gifts to homes, Father Christmas — also known as Old Man Winter — would travel from home to home where the people would offer him food and drink. In return he would grant them the blessings of a kind winter. Kris Kringle, is a corruption of the German name Christkindl which means “Christ Child”. He is depicted as a young boy with blonde hair and wings who brought gifts to children. The most popular figure that has influenced the persona of Santa is the third century Bishop of Myra, Saint Nicholas who was known for his generous gift giving and his love for children. There is a story about him regarding a poor man of Petara. He could not afford dowries for his three daughters. St. Nicholas had three bags of gold and on three separate nights, he threw the bags through an open window where they supposedly landed in stockings hung by the fireplace to dry. This was gradually added to Christmas lore and children began to hang their stockings by the fireplace on Christmas Eve to receive gifts in the morning.

Elves: Some historians say Odin was the King of Elves. Others attribute that title to Freyr. Regardless, elves have been considered part of the Solstice celebrations of the Germanic people from earliest times.

Going down the chimney: The hearth was held sacred in primitive belief as a source of beneficence, and popular belief had elves and fairies bringing gifts to the house through this portal. Odin would often enter through chimneys and fireholes on the solstice. In the Italian Befana tradition, the gift-giving witch is perpetually covered with soot from her trips down the chimneys of children’s homes.

Reindeer: Although, today, reindeer are associated with pulling Santa’s sleigh, they were originally the stags or cats that pulled the chariot of the Norse Goddess, Freya. Other references refer to Odin and his eight legged horse named Sleipnir (thus the eight reindeer associated with Santa) which he drove through the night sky.

Leaving carrots for the reindeer: According to some traditions, children would place their boots, filled with carrots, straw, or sugar, near the chimney for Odin’s flying horse, Sleipnir, to eat. Odin would then reward those children for their kindness by replacing Sleipnir’s food with gifts or candy

Christmas trees: During the celebrations for the birth of Horus, Egyptians decorated their homes with green date palm leaves to symbolize life’s triumph over death. During the time of the Druids, evergreens boughs were placed over the doorway to ward off evil spirits. In the Middle Ages, Germans and Scandinavians placed evergreen trees inside their homes or just outside their doors to show their hope in the forthcoming spring.

Mistletoe: was sacred to the Druids. They cut it from the oak tree with a golden sickle and gave it to the people. To hang it over a doorway or in a room was to offer goodwill to visitors. Kissing under the mistletoe was a pledge of friendship.

Yule log: the Celts decorated a log (a symbol of the Oak King) with evergreens (a symbol of the Holly King) and then lit it to symbolize the death of darkness and the returning of the light. The log is intended to burn for 12 days. A piece of the log is saved to be the kindling for next year’s fire.

Advent Wreath : originated with the ancient Celtic people of Germany and Scandinavia. The worship practices of these people were tied to the rhythms of the earth, with the sun holding a central place of importance. As the winter season approached with the lengthening days of darkness to the shortest day, the Winter Solstice, the Celts prayed for the sun’s return with its life-giving light, warmth and reassurance that Spring would come. The centerpiece of their spiritual rituals at this time was the living wreath, either formed of evergreens or with a cartwheel woven with evergreens. The evergreen wreath or wheel symbolized the unending circle of life, the rotation of the seasons. Lighted candles set within the wreath or wheel brought light to the darkness. By the 16th century Christians throughout Germany adapted this symbol as part of their Advent celebration. For them Christ was the symbol of hope, and was known as the everlasting Light.

Whether the tradition is Yule, Winter Solstice, Christmas, Native American, Diwali, Kwanza, Hanukkah, or Saturnalia, humans have celebrated this time of year for thousands of years with family, feasts, decorating our houses, gift giving, welcoming the return (birth) of the sun(Son) and longer days and shorter nights. As you can see, many of our current customs have long histories, but all of the celebrations at this time of year rejoice over the birth of the Son (sun), the returning of the light to the world and the promise of the warmth of spring.

Happy holidays, everyone.

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