Updated: Jul 21
Winter solstice occurs on the 21st December, at 9.48pm in the UK. It is our shortest day of the year, and with just 7 hours and 49 minutes, it is our longest night. Solstice literally translates to ‘sun standing still’ because at the moment of the solstice, the sun is at its lowest point, moving downwards before it begins to move upwards once again. Whilst it is the first day of Winter is it also the first day of the sun growing once again.
Observing the skies, sun and moon were prominent for our ancient cultures, especially in terms of farming the land and needing to observe the seasons. The depths of Winter was a time of famine, hardships, cold and death; food crops would become low and animals would be slaughtered to provide food and save on feed during a scarce time. Yet, the reversal of the sun in the sky represented the rebirth of the sun. It provided hope for warmer days and considered also as a time of celebration in honour of the sun god. A time of new beginnings it was a reason to feast and bring the community together.
The observation of Winter Solstice rituals have long been practiced by cultures all around the world. Incas celebrated Inti Raymi, a festival of the sun during this time. In the UK, Stonehenge points to the Sunrise of the Winter Solstice suggesting Winter Solstice was observed by our Neolithic ancestors. The festival of Yule is perhaps most associated with the Germanic peoples, the Wild Hunt and Odin. The word ‘Yuletide’ was being used around 1475, referring to a festival known as Yule, lasting 12 days (Dec. 21st - Jan. 1st). Also the Roman pagan festival of Saturnalia (typically from Dec. 17th - Dec. 24th), and of course, Christianity, following the birth of Christ at this time.
The modern Christmas is a fusion of traditions incorporating many cultures. Winter Solstice is known as Yalda Night in Iran. In the 18th century, Seventeen Arch Bridge in China was built, designed with delicate calculations to light up in the days around Winter Solstice to celebrate Dongzhi. Either way, many festivities include yule logs, Christmas trees, Father Christmas, carolling, a theme of light with candles and fires, good will, gifting and rebirth. A promise of light once again triumphing over darkness!
Ways to Celebrate Yule
The energy is high for a period of 12 days around the solstice and offers a perfect opportunity to get back to nature - and ourselves - and remember the importance of life.
On the morning of the solstice I like to go for a walk and take time to reflect on the past year. I get myself out into the woodland to collect fallen branches of evergreens and use them to decorate my home. Evergreens remind us of the life that still lingers, even in the dark, dormant, coming Winter. Holly, Pine, Ivy are nice finds. If you see mistletoe although revered by the Druids, it is best to leave it for the birds, as the white berries are a source of nutrition and the plant is in decline.
If you find lots of fallen branches why not make them into a wreath. Holly works really well and lasts. When making it you can reflect on the Holly King, who reminds us that life remains in the darkness of winter. I also decorate my altar in the Christmas colours with colours of green, gold, silver, red and use coloured candles at this time.
I love to be in the woodland amongst the trees. The Celtic peoples used to think trees were sacred and had meaning. The Elder tree embodies the seasonal energy of diminishing of light, with the last leaves dropping as Winter arrives. Its ability to sprout from damaged boughs symbolises regeneration, signifying an end but also a beginning. Birch is the Celtic tree for December 24 - January 20. It is a pioneer species and therefore represents regeneration and new growth. It grows on empty land, a clean slate if you like and provides courage to begin new challenges as it roots and grows to create a new world. If you find yourself by an Elder or Birch tree, then these are the associated trees of the season. It can be nice to sit and reflect on their meaning and listen to the wisdom of the trees. I like to leave a biological offering of some kind to show my love of the Earth and their role in our ecosystem.
I like to come home and organise small ecological gifts, something as simple as a sprig of Holly, and I buy teabags and pints of milk, ready to spend time with some of my Elders in the community over the days. Community is such a big part of Christmas. Our ancestors would have had to have come together to support each other in a harsh Winter. Whilst most of us don’t have to face such harsh Winters, emotionally this time can be very bleak, having lost many friends and loved ones. Traditionally it is a time of story telling, and our Elders are full of wisdom and stories when we take the time to sit with them and enjoy their company. I used to visit one person a day, for each of the 12 days when I lived in Manchester, it really was so much fun and lots of lovely memories were made.
Then it is about looking after nature’s occupants. I like to make suet and seed jars so the birdies have lovely food and can feast too. If you normally clear the garden of leaves and dying debris, why not chose to leave it for the insects to overwinter instead? Insects are in decline and such a valuable part of our ecosystem. You will be rewarded in your garden in Spring with bees, ladybirds and butterflies! Supporting nature helps us connect to our Earth mother, she gives us life and can help us to remember our place in the world, rather than being caught up in the consumerism and stress of our modern Christmas. Look after your pets too, by renewing their safe place or taking them to join you on a lovely long adventure on a crisp Winter’s morning. I really love getting out of the solstice as the world seems to be so still.
I like to make an altar outside too for the Elementals. I simply put a little candle down and then take a few bits of food from my feast outside to appease the spirits and ask them to protect my home during the Winter. You could chose to decorate a tree in your garden with biological offerings, rather than a cut Christmas tree. Or if you do have a Christmas tree, consider a potted one so it can live on in our eternal cycle of life. Whatever you do, do it mindfully, with joy in your heart, an awareness of renewal and gratefulness.
In Paganism, Yule marks the journey of the Sun King to bring light into the world and in Christianity, Jesus is seen as the bringer of light. Light is an important theme and therefore I like to light up my home by candlelight over the 12 day period. Please be safe with candles if you use them. For me, if creates a sense of peace. A way to retreat into the inner world.
I light to get a salt bath and have a good cleanse. I take time to reflect during this time of perfect balance - it is a time to accept both the light and dark, as one can not reign without the other. We can transform our darkness with acceptance. The solstice invites us to examine our shadow self; to visit our ancestral behaviours and patterns. We don’t have to carry the burden of lack, fear and pain and instead transform it. It is simply about allowing ourselves to feel emotions let them go so we can cradle our inner light. If any memories come from doing something wrong or not being your best self, thank that person for enabling you to grow. Be thankful for any negative experiences knowing they have helped you bloom into the person you needed to be. And we have the support of nature, it is a natural part of life. The trees send their energy within to their roots and stand bare.
Enjoy the early darkness rather than fearing it. Warm yourself in a cosy bed, do some self-care, journalling or mediation. Really be in the moment. Letting go of our bad feelings, fear and pain allows for positive thoughts and growth to take place. Write a list of 10 things you wish to leave behind in the dark this Solstice, it could be bad habits, negative feelings, situations that you feel guilty about. You can burn it in a fire later for the actual solstice.
Get ready for celebration of the sun! Create a fire outside (safely), burn a yule log. And burn all the things you want to let go of at the time of the solstice. Then take some time to honour the Earth (especially as we are coming into an Earth sign). You only have to go on Reuters to see photographs of polluted seas, nuclear spillages, war, destruction, dying wildlife, declining species and eating fake foods for pleasure. We cut down living entities that are hundreds of years old because they block the sunlight or we need to build roads. We replace grass with plastic grasses in our garden! Where has our respect for nature gone? And its people? We are suffering, high statistics show we are suffering from depression, anxiety, chronic dis-ease and a big part of that is because we have lost our connection with nature. In the time of darkness pledge to do one good thing to support our Earth. Make an offering and be open to the intelligence of nature. Send out an intention from your heart to protect all nature encompasses. Be still. Be happy that we have another year to do good work. Praying from the heart raises our collective vibrations.
The Winter solstice period is traditionally celebrated with feasting. If you are on your own, why not cook yourself a nourishing meal. Or maybe invite your friends or family and dine by candlelight. We are all in difficult financial times, so you could simply invite your friends and relatives and each to bring something for the table. Include all those warming Christmas spices such as ginger, cinnamon, dried fruits, jams, ferments, homemade mulled wines and ciders from the Summer’s bounty. It is a time of sharing the meaning of life, having fun and story telling and singing. If you invite friends, family or the community for a gathering, you can each can light a candle and create a circle. Send love to those that have passed and give thanks to the sun knowing they are still part of our eternal cycle of life.
The sun will always rise from now on. And now, it is simply a time of celebration! Play your favourite songs, dance, laugh and start planning for the Spring. We can’t know where we are going without a map so try spending some time thinking about your priorities. What did you come here to do? How can you give back? What are your goals and visions for the coming year? Find a time over the period to map out your next year, what seeds to you want to plant to come into fruition next year? Burn your desires in the flame of a candle lit from your fire and then dream them into reality over the dark Winter nights.
Use the time to catch up on sleep and dream into the underworld, the Aboriginals knew the power of dreamtime. Understand that darkness can be one of the greatest catalysts for personal growth and transformation and there are many tools you can use. Pagan friends might like to dedicate prayers to Cerrunnos, Dionysus, Ishtar, Horned God, Orsis, Loki, Persephone, Cerrunnos, Dionysus. Or you could work with crystals, such as ruby, garnet bloodstone or emerald.
And make a mental note that over the Christmas period that you will remain in high energy. No arguments, instead, simply observe, respond rather than react, and see what you can learn from the situation. If things get tough, go and look after yourself and protect your energy - deep breathe, go for a grounding walk or even better, go help a neighbour or someone who appreciates you for being you instead.
However you wish to celebrate, do it with peace and perfect harmony. In the Chinese Five Elements water element is linked to the Winter season. It governs the kidneys. The kidneys contain root energy, sparking the energy of the whole body. Often weakened and pushed to their limit with stress, so this time teaches us to take time out, be dormant and conserve energy. Water holds significant power, and nourished our Wood element (Spring energy), therefore take time to rest and recuperate, just like trees send energy to the roots, all ready to be revitalised in Spring once the celebrations are over.
We are all connected to source, whether that is God, a Deity, Energy. We are all one and it is our interpretations of source that make our world so very special, varied and unique. Many blessings to all.