The winter solstice is generally celebrated on the 21st December, although the astronomical date changes from year to year. This is the longest night of the year and, symbolising the rebirth of the divine spirit of life, it has been a time of celebration since prehistoric times, with religious and social festivities across all cultures. Ancient people considered the winter solstice, also known as Yule, as a very important time. Christmas Day is celebrated at the end of this period .
The Earth tilts by an average of 23.5 degrees as it orbits the sun and this is the phenomenon that causes the seasons. The solstices occur twice a year, around 21st June and 21st December. The word ‘solstice’ is from the Latin ‘sol’meaning sun and ‘systere’meaning standing still. In the northern hemisphere, the summer solstice occurs when the North Pole is tilted towards the sun and this culminates on 21st June, with the longest day. At the winter solstice, on 21st December, when the North Pole is tilted away from the sun, the shortest day occurs. This is the darkest day of the year but it may not be the coldest. The winter solstice is the point at which the earth starts its journey back towards lighter nights and longer days, as a new solar year begins.
At this time of year, the sun halts over the Tropic of Capricorn (23°S26′) for three days, at the end of its tropical journey south, before recommencing its tropical journey north. Astrologically, the winter solstice marks the entry of the sun into the cardinal, earth sign of Capricorn.
Capricorn is ruled by Saturn and therefore the Roman festival of the winter solstice was called the Saturnalia. This feast celebrated the winter solstice with the worship of Mithra, an ancient god of light. Germanic peoples of northern Europe celebrated the winter solstice with Yule festivals, which is the origin of the tradition of burning Yule logs. Modern Pagans observe the winter solstice with traditional customs and Christians celebrate Christmas at the time following the winter solstice.
These are some of the sacred plants associated with the winter solstice and their symbolism:
Evergreens:Continuity of Life, Protection, Prosperity
Holly:Old Solar Year; Waning Sun; Protection; Good Luck
Ivy:Fidelity, Protection, Healing, Marriage, Victory, Honor, Good Luck
Mistletoe:Peace, Prosperity, Healing, Wellness, Fertility, Rest, Protection
Oak:New Solar Year; Waxing Sun; Endurance, Strength, Triumph, Protection, Luck
Mistletoe grows well in oak trees and was sacred to the ancient Druids. Holly was seen as representing the male aspect and ivy, the female. There are mythological stories around midwinter, in which the Oak King triumphs over the Holly King, to rule during the growing light until midsummer. At this time, the Holly King seizes back the throne and reigns during the diminishing light until midwinter. The Oak King reigns during a time of new beginnings, growth and development and the Holly King reigns during a time of reflection and learning. The Holly and Oak Kings are believed to represent the two sides of the Green Man and the duality of life – light/darkness, waxing/waning, day/night.
In many of the old stories, midwinter is described as a time of hope, rebirth and new beginnings, with the light emerging from the darkness. Such was the significance of the earth’s cycle around the sun, that many ancient monuments were aligned to the rising or setting sun on the solstices.
Newgrange, in Ireland, is aligned to the rising midwinter sun, which shines through a narrow hole above the site’s entrance and illuminates the passageway and chamber. This dramatic event lasts for 17 minutes at dawn from the 19th to the 23rd of December. The light illuminates a stone basin below intricate carvings of spirals, eye shapes and solar discs. Maes Howe, in the Orkneys, Scotland, is also oriented towards the winter solstice sun. Stonehenge, in Wiltshire, England, is aligned to the setting midsummer sun. By building monuments that honoured significant dates, ancient peoples could live in accordance with annual cycles and perform respectful ceremonies to the higher wisdom, which they believed governed all life.
The universal energy, or ‘life’s breath’, is known as Qi in China, Ki in Japan, Prana to the Hindus, Pneuma to the Greeks, Ankh to the Egyptians, Ruah to the Hebrews, Tane to the Hawaiians, Arunquiltha to the Australian Aborigines and Orenda to the Iroquois. It is the air we breathe, the earth’s magnetic field, the sun’s light; it is our spirit and our inner strength; it is what breathes life into plants, animals, the mountains and the oceans.