“Heading into the night of the winter solstice, every spiritual tradition has some kind of festival of light. We're all just whistling in the dark, hoping against hope that someone up there will see these little candles and get the hint.” Lawrence Kushner
“As it somehow always manages before the winter solstice, but never after, the early darkness was cheerful and promising, even for those who had nothing.” Mark Helprin
I am extremely fortunate to be living live in the mid-Atlantic region of the United States. Living here I get to see each season for approximately an equal amount of time each year, and that is a delight. I love all of the seasons, both the seasons themselves and the transitions that lead up to them. People in this region get to fully experience the arrival of each season, see it develop over time, and then see and feel it fully emerge. And we get to delight in the simultaneous ending of one season and the slow deliberate arrival of the next. I think of all of this as the "endless cycle of the universe," and it has been here and continuing since time before time. I love this cycle, in part, because it links us to all the humans who have been here long before us and will be here long after us. And it links us all to the earth.
Humans have always noted, marked, responded to, and ritualized each of the aspects of this cycle. In all parts of the world we have created symbols, activities, images, music and more to show our deep dependence on and connections to this cycle, whether it has been about pure physical survival, deep emotional fear or hope, reverential worship, and/or deep spiritual love. Doing this is one of the things that seems to make us human; we can’t live in this world without doing it. And I love the coming of winter because it is one of those times when this connection between the cycle and our human need for ritual is so obvious. In all parts of the world the approach of winter is marked by big changes in climate and environment, and we respond. It either starts raining more or snowing. Fog may be more prevalent. Temperatures start to drop, trees, plants and crops go through noticeable changes, and the length of days-the amount of sunlight- changes. This hits a climax at the time of the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, and the day after, when the days start getting longer. Whether in the Northern Hemisphere, when the winter solstice is in December, or in the Southern Hemisphere, when it is in June, humans have met these changes repeatedly with organized group activities-rituals. There were songs, stories, dances, symbols, and especially fire and light. In the Scandinavian countries Juul feasts involved bringing a Juul log (Yule log) into the house and burning it in the hearth to honor of the god of thunder, Thor and to acknowledge a new beginning. The ashes were kept in the house or on one’s person as a sign of the belief in the rebirth of the world and hope for a better and safer new year. In ancient Rome the solstice was met by Saturnalia, a feast dedicated to Saturn, the father of the gods. It involved a reversal of social order, symbolic fertility gifts of fruits and dolls, and candles. It was the birth-rebirth of the sun and the gods, and things were in chaos for a while until proper order was returned in the days following the solstice. In the Southern Hemisphere descendants of the Inca had the tradition Inti Ramya, a festival welcoming the New Year and involving, among other things, animal sacrifice and the origin story of the Inca. Shab-E-Yalda celebrated the triumph of Mithra the sun god in Iran, parts of Turkey and parts of Afghanistan. Gatherings featured poetry, song, bonfires and wishes/prayers to protect the community from darkness and from evil in the coming year. In all of these traditions there is both a mystical connection to light and some form of symbolic rebirth. These are universal themes of our solstice observances, for we seem to need to meet the winter darkness with light and hope.
The Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa celebrations with which we are familiar are likewise about light and rebirth. Like all rituals they have symbolic meanings for just about every phase of the observance. The lighting of the menorah candles in Hanukkah, for example, recall the miracle of the oil that lasted 8 days during the re-dedication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. It is also a rebirth story for both the Temple and for the religion, as it honors the fact that the Jews were able to withstand the attempt by Antiochus to destroy their religion. The story of the Star of Bethlehem in the Christmas story is also about light and rebirth, as Christians believe the story represents the birth of a new “light” for the world. It is also the first part of a longer story of re-birth that culminates with Easter. And the lights on Christmas trees and the date of December 25th show what happens when various cultures come together and their beliefs, symbols and rituals intermingle. They get re-interpreted and take on new meanings. Likewise, Kwanzaa with its candle,s affirms a reverence for the rebirth of links between people of African descent and the continent of Africa. It is intended to represent the birth of a new awareness of African origins; the daily candle lighting, similar to Hanukkah, represent a re-dedication to communal African values. So even if we may not be aware of it, all of these celebrations affirm our continual links to that cycle of the earth and our deep connections to humans from earlier times and places. We may think of ourselves as more “modern” or “advanced” than our ancestors, but scratch the surface of so much of what we do, and the links between them and us are there.
So however you observe the reality of the solstice, know that by doing so you are joining with thousands of years of human history to acknowledge our connection to and reverence for the cycle. It is one of the things it means to be a human animal; one of the things that mark us as different from other living things. Do have a wonderful season of contemplation joy, re-dedication, gift giving and good food. And do stop every now and then to notice the beauty and power of the lights against the darkness. For we are still working to meet the darkness with light.