xmlns:og='http://ogp.me/ns#' Kryssie Fortune: The Winter Solstice - Customs and Beliefs

Friday, 19 December 2014

The Winter Solstice - Customs and Beliefs

The Day the sun stands still – that’s one encyclopaedia’s definition of the Solstice. On the 21st December there are a few hours of daylight then the longest night of the year begins.
The Winter Solstice is time of new beginnings and regeneration. As the days shortened, ancient men worried. What if the sun faded away entirely? They would live in permanent night with no warmth or light. There would be no spring planting. They would starve and die.  
Huge monuments were built, dedicated to tracking sunrise and sunset. Stonehenge is perhaps the most famous calendar ever built. Once the sun rose between its huge trilithons, everyone knew a corner had been turned. Spring would come again.

Different countries celebrate the Winter Solstice in different ways. The ancient Romans called their festival Saturnalia. Slaves and masters traded places and all punishment was suspended. Held in the dark time between autumn harvest and spring planting, it honoured Saturn – the God of Agriculture and Fertility. It was a time of feasting and dancing. Friends and family gathered. Fires were lit - sacred flames that symbolised the start of a new solar year.

Ancient Egyptians worshipped Osiris, God of Death, Life and Fertility. He died on the shortest, darkest day of the year then was instantly reincarnated. The Priests exhibited a newly born baby as proof of this annual miracle.

The Ancient Greeks named their solstice celebration Lenaei or the Feast of the Wild Women. The women tore a representation of the Harvest God Dionysus to pieces.
Much to their menfolk’s relief they actually sacrificed a goat, feasting on its flesh as part of their mid-winter rituals. Since the solstice is a time of new beginnings, the God was instantly reborn as a human baby.
For three days the sun seems to stand still on the horizon, rising and setting in the same places. The last of these days, the 23rd December was know as Artemis’ birthday. She was Greek Goddess of Fertility, often linked with the moon, and twin sister of Apollo the Sun God.

All midwinter festivals are connected to fertility, renewal and light. If the Gods were appeased then spring would come. It’s a time when people’s spirits are at their lowest, when there a primeval need to party. 
The Persian Sun God, Mithras, was different. He too was born at the Winter Solstice and, 3,000 years ago, the world celebrated.

His worship linked men to the heavens. Mithras had twelve disciples and his symbol was a lamb. His worship was mysterious, passed only by word of mouth.
The Roman legions adopted Mithras. His feast day was incorporated into Saturnalia. The solstice celebration became the Feast of the Unconquered Sun or Sol Invicta.
Pagans call the Winter Solstice Yule and celebrate it instead of Christmas. Some linguists think the name stems from the Vikings. They saw the sun as a huge wheel, revolving as the year progressed. The Norse term for wheel is hjol. Over the years the term has become anglicised to Yule. 
Perhaps the Norse Feast of the Dead gives Yule its name. It was held to honour of Odin, the most powerful of the Norse Gods.
  He presided over the Jol or Jule – the specially brewed Christmas ales. Again the words may have been corrupted to Yule. Odin is also the God of Drink and Pleasure. The feast became an excuse for a wild party.   
The Yule log has pagan origins. A huge piece of wood is found or given - never cut. The log is decorated with greenery, doused with cider or ale, dusted with flour and then burnt. The evergreens represent eternal life whilst the flames are symbolic of light banishing the winter darkness.
Few homes have hearths large enough to house Yule logs today. Instead a small piece of wood is drilled to take three candles before being decorated with greenery and dusted with flour. The candles burn throughout the holiday season, symbolising the return of the Sun God.
The wood of the Yule log imparts it’s own, unique characteristics when burnt. Ash brings peace, health and wealth into the home. Aspen reveals universal truths and deep secrets. Birch symbolises new beginnings whilst wood from the Holly tree brings visions to mystics. Oak is linked with healing and prosperity and Pine is for wealth and growth.
The greenery decorating the Yule log is full of ancient symbols. The Roman’s believed their God Saturn created Holly. They made wreaths from it during their Winter Solstice celebrations. 

Fearful of persecution, early Christians continued the tradition. Now holly wreaths are linked inexorably with Christmas. Their sharp leaves symbolise Jesus’ crown of thorns and their red berries his blood.
Ivy has links with both Bacchus, the Roman God of Drunkenness, and Dionysus. Wine Gods are always associated with drunken revels. That’s why ale-houses used to hang a bunch of ivy outside their door. It was probably the world’s first pub sign.
Medieval Christians were fascinated by the way ivy entwined itself around trees, thriving even when the tree was dead. They compared its tenacity to the strength of God’s love.
Mistletoe grew on sacred Oaks. Druids believed it kept evil spirits away. It keeps its colour even when the tree’s leaves fade and die. The Druids associated it with eternal life.  
The custom of kissing under the mistletoe started in the middle ages. Kisses were exchanged, even between men, to show peaceful intentions.
The Christmas tree is central to our Mid Winter Celebrations. Ancient Germanic people used to bring a tree into their house over winter to appease the wood spirits. They hung small parcels food on its branches. Some topped it with a five pointed star or pentagram.
The sixteenth century priest, Martin Luther, noticed the beauty of the winter forest. The sunlight shimmering on icicle-covered branches entranced him.
Seeing this beauty as a gift from God, he adopted the Pagan custom of tree decorating. After moving a conifer into his church, he fastened candles on its branches. That’s how the Christmas tree was born.
The Romans linked Christmas with the Solstice celebrations. They adopted Gods from other lands, merging them with their own. Thanks to them Christmas was celebrated on the same date as their Feast the Unconquered Sun. Now it falls just days away from the Winter Solstice.
And what about old Father Time? Pagans believe Yule is the birth of the Sun God. He matures as the year progresses and dies when it ends. He is reborn with the coming of a new solar year.

Beliefs may have changed, but we still see out the year with the grey-haired, stooped Old Father Time. We party the old year out but our hopes are not much different to our ancestors. We make resolutions and plan a better future. The New Year is our time of new beginnings.

On a more personal note, Saturn - of Saturnalia fame - is a major charactor in my book Giving it up for the Gods, and Mithras makes plays a vital part in my current work in progress. 

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