Thursday, December 21, 2017

Winter Solstice: Return of the Light

In the Northern Hemisphere, the Winter Solstice is the shortest day of the year and the first day of winter. This occurs December 20, 21, or 22, varying from year to year, dependent upon the elliptical path of the Earth around our Sun. Technically the solstice marks the instant at which the Earth's axis stops tilting away from the sun and starts going back the other way. Solstice means "Standing-Still-Sun." At Winter Solstice, the Sun journeys farthest south in its orbital path and for the next three days it rises and sets at virtually the same place on the horizon, appearing to stand still, and then it slowly returns north.

This three day pause in the Sun's movement is a time of inward reflection. We are each given the opportunity to take a peek at what is happening on a heart and soul level. We can reflect on the year ending to see where we have erred and reform those beliefs, attitudes, and strategies no longer applicable to the New Year unfolding. Such a fresh open-minded approach will broaden our perspective and start us out on the right track.

Ancient peoples in our northern climes regarded Winter Solstice as the pivotal time of year. It is a time of transition in the annual cycle when the old year ends and our journey into the New Year begins. It is a sacred time to conduct ceremonies focused on the return of light and warmth. Rituals designed to divert nature from the path toward eternal winter and oblivion to one directed toward light and prosperity. Most cultures planned festivals and celebrations at or around the Winter Solstice to ensure that the Sun would return.

The Pueblos of the American Southwest have honored the Winter Solstice for thousands of years. Zuni Indians celebrate Shalako and Hopis begin the observance of the month long Soyal with rituals to insure victory of light over darkness. Hopi priests wear feathers in their headdresses symbolizing the Sun's rays. Sacred underground structures called kivas let in the rays of the rising and setting Sun and Moon throughout the year. Among the Pueblos, Winter Solstice is an affirmation of the continuation of life; that the cyclical order of time and the cosmos will continue intact.

Fire and light have always played a central role in the Winter Solstice ceremonies. In much of northern Europe people ignited huge bonfires. Lighted candles were often placed on the branches of evergreen trees, which symbolized survival and eternal life. These symbols of warmth and lasting life were lit to hasten the "old" Sun's waning and the "new" Sun's rebirth. People often tied apples to the branches of firs and oaks to remind themselves that summer would eventually return. In the British Isles, mistletoe was placed upon altars. Mistletoe's golden color was believed to store the power of the Sun, especially when plucked at the solstice.

In Peru, the people fasted for three days prior to the solstice. At dawn on the morning of the fourth day, everyone gathered in the public plaza to watch the sunrise. When its light appeared, the celebration began with shouts of joy. At the Sun Temple the rays of the Sun were focused with a mirror to make a fire. This sacred fire was carried to all the outlying temples, where it was kept burning on the altars throughout the year.

In my own solstice celebration, I like to incorporate a sacred fire. Before the Sun sets on the solstice, I will light a large candle or oil lamp, call the spirit of the Sun into that fire, and allow it to burn until morning, when his spirit has returned to the sky.

On the Winter Solstice we are all praying, on some level, for the darkness to end. "Just return the light!" the ceremonies seem to say. As we celebrate the return of the light, we affirm the continuation of life at the very moment of dissolution. To be sure, dark days lie ahead. But contained within each is the promise of brighter tomorrows.

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