What is the real meaning of the Winter Solstice?

At this time in the world when many of us are feeling unsettled with the political arena and wondering what on earth is going on, let’s take a two month break from discussing archetypes to look first at the ancient meaning behind this upcoming winter festival and, next month, to what leaving behind the Year of the Trickster Monkey will mean for us. The Midwinter Solstice festival is celebrated all round the world by many traditions. Some of its names are Christmas; the Jewish HannukkahPancha Ganapati, a five-day festival in honour of Lord Ganesha, celebrated by Hindus in USA; and Shabe Chelle, an Iranian festival celebrating the victory of light and goodness over darkness and evil.

The word solstice comes from the Latin sol stretit which means “sun stands still”. For approximately six days at midwinter and again at midsummer, the sun does not seem to move and appears to stand still in the sky. These solstices divide the year into two halves and serve as important anchor points in the farming year.  To move the year on, dances were choreographed to mimic the seasons and coax them forward and these masked dancers are still reflected in the masked “guisers” who tour outlying villages of Britain and Ireland today. In more ancient times, shamans, who were the first priests, would climb up the World Tree to reach the Otherworld and climb back down again with the gifts of prophecy and wisdom to give to us all and this is still enacted by Father Christmas coming down the chimney to give us presents.

All over the world, humans have celebrated midwinter as the demise of the old year and the birth of the new. In the North, various symbols have come to represent the fears and hopes of the turning of the year over thousands of years: fire as a symbol warmth and light as a symbol of the returning sun, boughs of greenery bound into rings to represent the circle of creation and images of deities that have the strength to bring spring back again.

There are many pagan and religious symbols in our modern day celebrations. A long time before Christianity, the Christmas Tree began life as the Solstice Evergreen, promising that life would return after the death that winter represented. The Yule Log originated in pagan Scandinavia and represented the turning of the magical year. The ancient carol “The Holly and the Ivy” derives from pre-Christian times when the Lord and Lady of the Greenwood were honoured by the hanging of green garlands from the ridge poles of houses. Indeed, the true origins of the Spirit of Christmas – Santa Claus, Father Christmas, Saint Nicholas, Old St Nick, Syre Christemas and Sinter Class – are as old as history. In Arthurian times, The Green Knight – who represented winter – arrived at King Arthur’s Court just as the Christmas festivities were starting. He offered to play a strange game. Anyone brave enough should strike him with an axe on the understanding that he would return the blow in a year’s time. Only Gawain had the courage to accept the challenge but eventually his head was severed by the Green Knight. Of course the killing of Gawain was merely a prelude to his battle for the hand of The Spring Maiden.

Then, of course, two thousand years ago a baby was born in Bethlehem bringing love and forgiveness to the world. Afterwards, in Medieval Britain, a bishop called Nicholas was so saddened by the poverty in his Parish that he would slip into houses at night and leave presents in the shoes of his parishioners, especially children, as a gift of compassion.

Though it’s all too easy at the moment to feel discombobulated by what’s happening in the world, let’s choose to mark the solstice as a time of hope rather than despair. The choice to live in faith rather than fear allows us to demonstrate our hope for the future knowing that, however bleak things may seem, spring will come again. By touching history at its very heart, we can connect not only to the lives of the millions of people who have gone before us but also to the rest of humanity, joining hands across the globe in trust and love, whatever religious faith we do or do not observe. After all, the light is still there just waiting to shine on us again. All we have to do is to be brave enough to lift our heads and look up.

Wishing you a happy, peaceful and joyous Solstice.

Love Laurelle