Wednesday, December 15, 2010
December 21/22: The day of the long night for those of us who live north of the equatorial zones . This day has the 24-hour period with the most hours of darkness. On this ultimate day of rest, even the mighty Sun stands momentarily still in the sky.The word solstice literally means "sun standing still." At the moment of the winter solstice, the path of the sun in the sky over the past six months has reached its furthest southern position and now turns northward.
Festivals, rituals and celebrations appear throughout human cultures, beginning at least in the Neolithic Period of 10,000 years ago. We all have heard of Stonehenge and its function as a megalithic solar observatory. We now know that it has a contemporary counterpart in Ireland called Newgrange, which is estimated to be 5000 years old. Newgrange is also a solar observatory designed to funnel a shaft of sunlight deep into its central chamber at dawn on the day of the Winter Solstice.
The best known celebration/festival during late December is Christmas, but it is a recent festival added to the list. Its date was set by the Roman Emperor during the Fourth Century to coincide with pagan rituals and celebrations surrounding the Winter Solstice. There are great similarities to the "Birth of the Son" and the "Rebirth of the Sun" beyond the obvious similarity of words.
Festivals of the Winter Solstice have ancient origins. The ancient Egyptians, Babylonians and Persians had renewal festivals during this period, as did the Romans and other European cultures: the Roman Saturnalia, the Norse and Germanic Yule and the Celtic festivals. Winter Solstice festivals were not limited to Europe either. Among these are the Pakistani Chaomas, the Tibetan Dosmoche, the Chinese Dong Zhi and the Japanese Hari Kuyo. Native North Americans also held solstice rituals. These all predate the introduction of Christianity to their region and many of these rituals and festivals were later incorporated into Christmas observances such as mistletoe and holly. In some traditions of Wicca and Paganism, the Yule celebration comes from the Celtic legend of the battle between the young Oak King and the Holly King. The Oak King, representing the light of the new year, tries each year to usurp the old Holly King, who is the symbol of darkness. Re-enactment of the battle is popular in some Wiccan rituals.
At the root of all these celebrations and rituals is the battle between Light and Dark. The battle reaches a turning point on the Winter Solstice as the advances of Darkness are halted and the tide turns for the forces of Light. Light returns to drive the gloom away and to raise our spirits. As a festival of the Sun, the most important part of any Yule celebration is light,candles,and bonfires.
"It's a ritual of transformation from darkness into light," says Nicole Cooper, a high priestess at Toronto's Wiccan Church of Canada. "It's the idea that when things seem really bleak, (it) is often our biggest opportunity for personal transformation."The idea that the sun and the moon are almost at their darkest at this point in time really only further goes to hammer that home."Cooper said Wiccans also see great significance in the unique coupling of the masculine energy of the sun and the feminine energy of the moon.
The last time the two celestial events happened at the same time was in AD 1554, according to NASA. An otherwise seemingly unexceptionable year in recorded history, the darkened moon happened during a bleak year for Tudor England. Lady Jane Grey was beheaded for treason that year, while Princess Elizabeth was imprisoned in the Tower of London. Mary of Guise — the mother of Mary, Queen of Scots — became regent of Scotland.
The eclipse will start just after midnight Eastern Time on Tuesday, with the main event starting at 1:30 a.m. ET and lasting until 5:30 a.m., when the moon reappears.
Yule, (pronounced EWE-elle) is when the dark half of the year relinquishes to the light half. Starting the next morning at sunrise, the sun climbs just a little higher and stays a little longer in the sky each day. Known as Solstice Night, or the longest night of the year, much celebration was to be had as the ancestors awaited the rebirth of the Oak King, the Sun King, the Giver of Life that warmed the frozen Earth and made her to bear forth from seeds protected through the fall and winter in her womb. Bonfires were lit in the fields, and crops and trees were "wassailed" with toasts of spiced cider.
Children were escorted from house to house with gifts of clove spiked apples and oranges which were laid in baskets of evergreen boughs and wheat stalks dusted with flour. The apples and oranges represented the sun, the boughs were symbolic of immortality, the wheat stalks portrayed the harvest, and the flour was accomplishment of triumph, light, and life. Holly, mistletoe, and ivy not only decorated the outside, but also the inside of homes. It was to extend invitation to Nature Sprites to come and join the celebration. A sprig of Holly was kept near the door all year long as a constant invitation for good fortune to pay visit to the residents.
The ceremonial Yule log was the highlight of the festival. In accordance to tradition, the log must either have been harvested from the householder's land, or given as a gift... it must never have been bought. Once dragged into the house and placed in the fireplace it was decorated in seasonal greenery, doused with cider or ale, and dusted with flour before set ablaze be a piece of last years log, (held onto for just this purpose). The log would burn throughout the night, then smolder for 12 days after before being ceremonially put out. Ash is the traditional wood of the Yule log. It is the sacred world tree of the Teutons, known as Yggdrasil. An herb of the Sun, Ash brings light into the hearth at the Solstice.
A different type of Yule log, and perhaps one more suitable for modern practitioners would be the type that is used as a base to hold three candles. Find a smaller branch of oak or pine, and flatten one side so it sets upright. Drill three holes in the top side to hold red, green, and white (season), green, gold, and black (the Sun God), or white, red, and black (the Great Goddess). Continue to decorate with greenery, red and gold bows, rosebuds, cloves, and dust with flour.
Candles are used during this celebration as symbols of the Sun's light and of the new year. Electric lights only became popular in the early 20th century as a substitute for candles. You will see the theme of the returning light in the way Christians hang Christmas lights and put a star at the top of their trees. Decorating the tree with light is believed to have originated in Germany and Scandinavia. Families would bring a "live" tree into the home so the wood spirits would have a warm place to live during the cold winter months. Bells were hung on the limbs of the tree so you could "hear" when a spirit was present, food and treats were left on the branches so the spirit could eat, and a five-pointed star -- the pentagram -- was placed at the top of the tree.
The German Martin Luther is credited as the first person to decorate his tree with candles. After seeing how beautiful the stars were at night, he wanted to recreate the image for his children.
"Christmas" trees were introduced to the court of Queen Victoria by her husband, Prince Albert. Although it was the custom to decorate live evergreen trees in honor of the Gods, our modern practice of cutting down a tree to bring indoors is a blasphemous desecration of the original concept. The evergreen is one of few plants to remain green even in winter and it is a symbol of life during the season of death. Decorating these trees and branches is a way of celebrating life. They are adorned with lights to encourage and honor the Sun, tinsel to encourage the melting of the snow, and the fruits of the harvest to give thanks and to ensure a bounty for the next planting season.
The low point on the "Wheel of the Year," Yule is associated with the birth of the Divine King, the Sun god. Although he is still young and weak, the days are getting longer as his light begins to grow. Earth is in darkness and the Goddess is sleeping (some say). The God who died at the harvest festival of Lammas -- cut down with the grain -- has spent this time traveling in the underworld and is now reborn. Which brings us to the battle between the Oak King, representing the waxing year, and the Holly King, who represents the waning year. The Oak King, The Child of Promise, comes from the union, the love and the creative forces of the God and Goddess and is considered to be the creative principle of the universe -- the mighty one who conquers darkness and brings light to the world. He is virile, fertile and a creative force who plants seeds that will bring new life, thus ensuring its continuation. He is the lord of nature and of the forest and he reminds us of our connection to every living thing.
The Holly King, the God of death and the underworld, is he who conquers light and brings rest and rebirth to the world. He is the other half of the eternal struggle between dark and light (not good and evil). He is the God who gathers souls to him to help prepare them for rebirth, even as he dies and is reborn. He is a healer who can comfort us in times of sorrow and loss because he has walked that path before us. He is a god of judgment, retribution and balance, the keeper of the laws.
At Midsummer, as the year begins its turn toward the dark again, Holly is victorious, but at Midwinter, the Oak King defeats the forces of darkness, revealing himself as a vegetation god who must die each year so that life can be renewed.
Decorated trees, lights, wreaths on the door -- these are symbols of the season. Many of these symbols originated as many as 5,000 years ago. They represent reasons for celebration in the Christmas tradition and the earlier pagan rites: rebirth and everlasting life told in the stories of the birth, death and resurrection of Hercules, Dionysus, Mithra, Horus, Jesus, Arthur and many others.
Holly and ivy are also Yule symbols. Their origins are ancient. Romans used holly during the Winter Solstice, known to them as the Saturnalia. Gifts of holly were exchanged. Holly was believed to ward off lightning and evil spirits. It was also seen as a symbol of the masculine, ivy the symbol of the feminine. The custom of decorating the doorway with the two plants intertwined represented a symbolic union of the two halves of divinity.
Celtic people believed that mistletoe was a strong charm against lightning, thunder and evil. Druids harvested the plant from sacred oak trees five days after the New Moon following the Winter Solstice. Norse people also considered the plant sacred. Warriors who met under the mistletoe would not fight, but maintained a truce until the next day. Other cultures considered mistletoe to be aphrodisiac, thus came the custom of "kissing under the mistletoe."
Giving gifts at Yule is another old symbol.The tradition of Christmas gift-giving is a mystery. Many believe the ritual to have descended from the ancient Roman Saturnalia festival. Saturnalia (named for Saturn, the Roman God of sowing) was observed from roughly December 17 through December 25. Its purpose? To see out the old year and safeguard the health of the crops sown in winter. For the populace of Rome, it was also a time of feasting and gift-giving. The citizens exchanged "strenae" -- boughs of laurel and evergreen that brought good luck -- and the children received "sigillaria," small clay dolls which were purchased at a special fair held during the week of Saturnalia. Gifts of homemade pastries and sweets would be exchanged and those of higher rank might make presents of jewelry or pieces of gold and silver.
Christian tradition equates the giving of gifts to the Magi who visited the Christ child shortly after his birth, bringing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the Savior.
And last, but not least, we have our modern Santa Claus. Santa is a combination of several figures -- St. Nick from Holland, Father Christmas from England, Kris Kringle from Germany and Father Winter from Russia, among others. These figures all have pagan roots. Norse and Germanic peoples tell stories of the Yule Elf, who brings presents on the Solstice to those who leave offerings of porridge. Odin is a Norse god also identified with the character of Santa. One of his titles was Jolnir, "Lord of the Yule," and he bears a resemblance to Santa.
Symbolism of Yule:
Rebirth of the Sun, The longest night of the year, The Winter Solstice, Introspect, Planning for the Future.
Symbols of Yule:
Yule log, or small Yule log with 3 candles, evergreen boughs or wreaths, holly, mistletoe hung in doorways, gold pillar candles, baskets of clove studded fruit, a simmering pot of wassail, poinsettias, christmas cactus.
Herbs of Yule:
Bayberry, blessed thistle, evergreen, frankincense holly, laurel, mistletoe, oak, pine, sage, yellow cedar.
Foods of Yule:
Cookies and caraway cakes soaked in cider, fruits, nuts, pork dishes, turkey, eggnog, ginger tea, spiced cider, wassail, or lamb's wool (ale, sugar, nutmeg, roasted apples).
Incense of Yule:
Pine, cedar, bayberry, cinnamon.
Colors of Yule:
Red, green, gold, white, silver, yellow, orange.
Stones of Yule:
Rubies, bloodstones, garnets, emeralds, diamonds.
Activities of Yule:
Caroling, wassailing the trees, burning the Yule log, decorating the Yule tree, exchanging of presents, kissing under the mistletoe, honoring Kriss Kringle the Germanic Pagan God of Yule
Spellworkings of Yule:
Peace, harmony, love, and increased happiness.
Wassail was originally a word that meant to greet or salute someone -- groups would go out wassailing on cold evenings, and when they approached a door would be offered a mug of warm cider or ale. Over the years, the tradition evolved to include mixing eggs with alcohol and asperging the crops to ensure fertility. While this recipe doesn't include eggs, it sure is good, and it makes your house smell beautiful for Yule!
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 3 hours, 00 minute
•1 Gallon apple cider
•2 C. cranberry juice
•1/2 C honey
•1/2 C sugar
•1 apple, peeled and diced
•3 cinnamon sticks (or 3 Tbs. ground cinnamon)
•1/2 C - 1 C brandy (optional)
Set your crockpot to its lower setting, and pour apple cider, cranberry juice, honey and sugar in, mixing carefully. As it heats up, stir so that the honey and sugar dissolve. Stud the oranges with the cloves, and place in the pot (they'll float). Add the diced apple. Add allspice, ginger and nutmeg to taste -- usually a couple of tablespoons of each is plenty. Finally, snap the cinnamon sticks in half and add those as well.
Cover your pot and allow to simmer 2 - 4 hours on low heat. About half an hour prior to serving, add the brandy if you choose to use it.
One year I decided to have a solstice tree as opposed to a Christmas Tree. I asked everyone who came to my solstice party to bring something natural to decorate the tree with. It turned out to be the most beautiful tree I have ever seen. Some of the decorations included:
- dehydrated slices of fruit such as blood oranges, lemons, limes, pears and apples which were hung in front of lights on the tree to give a look of stained glass ornaments
- strings of cranberries and popcorn wrapped around the tree
- pinecones decorated with beads and glitter
- leaves that had been treated so that just the veins remained and spray painted gold ( here is a recipe to make leaf skeletons)
- the top of the tree was decorated with a stained glass eagle
An activity I had each guest do that night,was to make a doll. I used dried poppy seed heads on stalks for the head and body. A wooden skewer was lashed across the middle to make the arms. I had strips of fabric precut and my guests used markers to write on them things they wished to let go of in the new year. They then dipped the fabric strips in melted wax and draped them over the stick figures to create their poppets/dolls( make sure to use a double boiler affair to melt the wax and keep it melted through the night. Wax is highly flammable and will ignite over direct heat, use a water bath under the container with the wax!)
It was highly entertaining to see everyones individual creations. We saved them until New Years Eve when we set them in the ground outside and burned them to release our wishes to the universe. Because of the wax, they burn long and bright. Be careful doing this, make sure they are far from the house and anything flammable as they are hard to put out.
You can see there are many ways to celebrate Yule and many symbols of this holiday. However you celebrate, I wish you a Blessed Yule, a Happy Solstice and a Merry Christmas.