“ 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
I love looking at ritual and symbolism, particularly as they relate to mythologies, human celebrations and observances. I think there is something in looking at those things that links us to all of the humans who have come before us from all around the world and across time. We are all human, after all, and when we get past the specific details of our rituals and cultural ways we have done pretty much the same things in pretty much the same ways for most of our existence. Humans, for example, have always had to note, mark, respond to, symbolize and ritualize what we see and experience in the natural world on an ongoing basis. All of us. Humans have developed these things to show our deep dependence on, awareness of, and connection to the natural world. Whether it is just about physical survival, deep emotional fear or hope, reverential worship, or deep spiritual love, or all of these things, we have done this seemingly for as long as we have been on the planet. It is simply what we do; we can’t live in this world without doing it. It is one of the things that make us human. And we always do it most intensely around the time of changes in the seasons.
For Northern Hemisphere residents, next week marks one of those changes. It is the winter solstice-the start of winter. The sun seems higher in the sky as the motion of the earth dramatically changes the location of the sun to us and the amount of daylight we get in a 24 hour period. The solstice is the day with the least amount of sunlight for the year, and we have always been aware of that. On our modern calendar that means December 21stinto the 22.nd For some of us in the ancient world this occurrence meant both fear and reverence. The sun died that day and had to be brought back to life. Prayers, dances, special foods, music and especially ritual were used during this period to accomplish this task. It was vital to our survival.
Rituals are group events. The whole family or village or town or settlement has to be involved. Unlike a one-day equinox, the solstice lasts for three days, and it was/is believed by many peoples that on that third day, had the rituals been followed correctly, the sun would be reborn and all would be right once more. We would again enjoy the benefits of the sun in the sky. Days following the solstice gradually get longer, so the solstice was looked at as a form of “celestial rebirth.” And coming out of the longest period of night in the year, it’s happening had to be met with light in most of the Hemisphere. There are tons of solstice themed observances around the world, and light and rebirth play a key role in most of them.
We can see remnants of those ancient traditions in many of our contemporary winter observances. In northern China there is the tradition of Dong Zhi, the arrival of winter. It is a family reunion time, and they eat gluttonous rice balls that symbolize the family and village being back together and facing the winter as one. The days get longer after Dong Zhi, so the rituals provide power and faith to restore the sun and bring positive energy-light-back into our lives. In many cultures candles, burning logs and bonfires pay homage to the missing sun and are employed to bring the sun back. In Scandinavia folks celebrated Jul by lighting fires from special trees, including a log from the previous year’s celebration.
This was an acknowledgement of the sun’s return and a thanks to Thor who made it possible. Yalda in Iran celebrates the snatching of the sun back from the devil and its gradual return to the sky look over the earth. Again, there are special foods and fires connected with these festivals. Saturnalia, the birthday of the Roman god Saturn, was celebrated from approximately December 17 through the solstice days with feasts, a temporary reversal of social roles and expectations, and what we might call sexual excess. It was a party time similar in many ways to Mardi Gras with parades, music, and grand feasts. In that part of the world it was also the start of the winter sowing season, so the sexual activities that were originally associated with it were symbolic of planting, harvesting and the re-birth of the earth and the sky. There was also gift giving, candle lighting, group singing and feasting-universal components of most Northern Hemisphere winter observances. Many of these things are now considered standard features of our own Christmas celebrations; in fact here are many historians who consider Saturnalia the most origin of many of today’s Christmas activities.
So this is a fun time of the year for me. I get to think about us as humans and all of the ways we see and do things similarly. We all have to find ways to acknowledge what is going on around us in the natural world, to figure out how to make the world work for us, and to come to terms with the realization that we don’t have all the answers or all the power. We may work and struggle to have things make sense and to work out, but no matter where we all or when we ae, we all use pretty much the same symbols, rituals, and practices; we all have the same toolbox. Something about that comforts me and lets me know that I am just human and that we are all, despite some obvious differences, essentially the same. I hope you can all find joy and comfort in the coming season.