Happy Winter Solstice!
Hail to the returning Sun.
We drink to the Old Gods.
To the Holly, to the Oak, and Lady.
A Merry Yule to all!
— A very old Yuletide toast, shared from my dear Crone sister Alruna
The Winter Solstice is the shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. The precise moment of the 2006 Solstice is today, Thursday, December 21 at 7:22 pm, Eastern Standard Time (or Dec. 22, 0:22 UT).
Known as Solstice Night, Yule Night or Julblot, on this longest night of the year, we celebrate the rebirth of the divine Sun Child, the Oak King, the Giver of Life. It is the night when we honor Thor, whose holy hammer has regenerated the Sun and who warms us with plentiful food, drink and camraderie. The dominant religion’s birth celebration is actually a relatively recent development, rearranged for political expediency three centuries after their God’s birth.
The observation of Winter Solstice is far more ancient. We can trace it with certainty to over 4,000 years ago in the ancient Mesopotamian cultures, for there are written records of the rites performed then in order to celebrate the end of the darkening. But many, many cultures around the world have given this time great spiritual importance.
Newgrange, a beautiful megalithic site in Ireland, is a huge circular stone structure, estimated to be 5,000 years old. It is centuries older than Stonehenge, and older than the Egyptian pyramids! It was built to receive a shaft of sunlight deep into its central chamber at dawn on Winter Solstice.
Hundreds of other megalithic structures throughout Europe are oriented to the solstices and the equinoxes. The field of archaeoastronomy studies such sacred sites in the Americas, Asia, Indonesia, and the Middle East. Recent research into the medieval Great Zimbabwe in sub-Saharan Africa (also known as the “African Stonehenge”) indicates a similar purpose. In North America, one of the most famous such sites is the Sun Dagger of Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, built a thousand years ago by the Chacoans, ancestors of the Pueblo people.
Solstice observance is probably far older still, for recent research has even found indications that Neolithic agrarian cultures tracked the phases of the Moon, and it would be quite surprising if they did not also observe the waning and waxing of the daylight and night hours.
Many people have asked me – which night is the actual longest night? Tonight? Or tomorrow night? It is a bit puzzling, and after a lengthy search, I could not find a conclusive answer. But then, it was instructive to take a look at the need to know with such scientific precision.
You see, as far as we know, our ancestors did not have atomic clocks or satellites to help them dissect Time to the nanosecond. Instead, they had to figure by their keen observation, by dead reckoning, by the animals, stars, Moon, and plants. And that is why they named this time “Solstice,” because it comes from the Latin “solstitium,” from sol, which means “sun” and -stitium, “a stoppage.” For several days, in fact, it appears that the sun’s arc from sunrise to sunset is unchanged. The long, steady darkening that our Old Ones watched ever since mid-June appears to pause… and then…. one day, the sun rises a little more to the north east, and the day is a little longer. What relief! Even our own present-day animal bodies feel this, even if our scientific rational minds can ignore or explain it all away. For now the days can be seen to lengthen. All can know that even as we now enter this doorway to Winter, Spring is a certainty.
If, as our ancestors did, we wish to stay up all night to greet the new dawn with song and celebration, which night should we do it? In some traditions, Mother Night was last night, the night before Solstice. Many others who wish to have a sacred vigil will be doing so tonight. In England, they will celebrate at Stonehenge tomorrow morning at 7:45am – 9am, local time. In any case, I suggest you trust what is in your spirit, your body’s memory from the ancient fires of your ancestors.
This pause between Dark and the return of the Light is such a holy time. This is the emptiness, the space between breaths, where Magic happens. Enter the dark Mystery with your shining candle, at whatever time seems most right to you. No matter what this Winter holds in store, our flame shall yet burn brightly and hope is reborn.
May the Lord and the Lady bring you brightest blessings.