advent star
Ancient Civilizations,  Native Spirituality

Winter Solstice: Bring Light to the Darkest Night

Celebrate the Winter Solstice with me and your ancestors!  Let’s bring light to the darkest night!!!!

What is the Winter Solstice?

The Winter Solstice occurs on December 21st of every year, it is the time of year that the north pole is tilted farthest from the Sun.  This is the shortest day and the longest night of the year!  In the northern hemisphere, December 21st is the beginning of winter (for me, the snow has been here for over a month).

What does the Winter Solstice symbolize?

For northern people living (not so) long ago, winter could be a time winter-solsticeof scarcity, famine and death.  Each day leading up to the solstice, the Sun would get lower in the sky at midday, sometimes disappearing completely below the horizon (if you’re far north enough).  Today at noon, the sun was barely above the treeline – leaving long shadows and a sunset that began at 3:30pm.

Nights in winter are long, dark and cold – tonight’s forecast is -30.  I’m grateful for the glowing warmth of my home.  I can only imagine how our ancestors felt – grateful for warmth and food.  When food was plentiful, they held feasts and ceremonies with grateful intentions.

The Sun Wheel and the Medicine Wheel look identical and symbolize the same thing.

The Winter Solstice is the end and beginning of our annual cycle through the seasons, symbolizing both death and (re)birth.  Northern cultures often celebrate the seasonal cycle of the northern environment.  This annual cycle of the seasons is often symbolized by a wheel in northern pagan cultures.  The medicine wheel in North American cultures and the sun wheel in northern European cultures symbolize the seasonal cycle of life.

All life on earth depends on the Sun.  Early northern cultures recognized the Sun’s importance to all life.

For three days following the winter solstice, the Sun will appear to rise to the same height in the sky before getting higher in the sky with each passing day until Summer Solstice.  Traditionally during these three days, a sacred fire was lit to bring light to the darkness.

How was the Winter Solstice celebrated in the past?

The Winter Solstice was celebrated by pagan cultures around the globe, mostly located in the northern hemisphere.

Winter Solstice was celebrated by the Romans with Saturnalia, the Japanese with Toji, Northern Europeans celebrated Yule and several Native American tribes celebrated Winter Solstice.

Winter Solstice celebrations typically included adorning the home with symbols of life (despite the cold winter) – like boughs of evergreen trees, winter berries, misletoe, holly and in north america also juniper and cedar.

Native American Traditions

Ceremonies to commemorate their Gods and the Sun often included sacrifices, sweat lodges, singing, feasting and the lighting of a large sacred fire.  In Native American tradition, the sacred fire was lit at sacred fireWinter Solstice on top of the ashes saved from last year’s fire.  The fire was maintained for 3 days straight.  People will take turns staying up at night with the fire.  During their time with the fire – they think about their life over the past year and how they can improve for the next year.  They focus on what they would like to achieve in the upcoming year.  They make their intentions for the upcoming year by holding a handful of evergreen leaves and then tossing them into the fire.  The intentions are believed to be carried into the spirit world with the smoke.

Northern European Tradition

In Northern European tradition, a fire is lit using the log from the yule tree.  Intentions are carved into the log and then the log is burned.  As the log burns, it is believed that the intentions are carried into the spirit world with the rising smoke.  A small piece of the log is saved in order to start the next year’s yule fire with it.

When the Christianization of Europe occured, Winter Solstice celebrations were replaced with Christmas.  As many people now know, Jesus wasn’t born on December 25th.  The date of his birth was moved to correspond with Winter Solstice so that the conversion of pagans would be easier.  Christmas replaced Saturnalia and Yule but retained much of the original traditions.

When European colonization of the Americas occured, Native American celebrations of Winter Solstice were also replaced by Christmas, as many Natives converted to Christianity.

How can WE celebrate the Winter Solstice today?

In the past, the Winter Solstice was the start of a celebration that continued until the beginning of January.  Today, this time of year corresponds with the Christmas/New Year celebrations.  Many of our Christmas traditions that don’t include Christmas Mass or the Nativity – are traditions from our pagan past.

For example – the Christmas tree, mistletoe, holly, yule logs, Santa Claus and even Christmas stockings are all linked to the pagan celebration of Yule.  Even the hedonistic New Years celebrations likely have pagan roots.

Here are some tips you can use to bring back the ancient celebration of Winter Solstice:
  1.  Sun Symbols.  Stars were originally included in Winter Solsticewinter solsticecelebrations because they symbolized the Sun, the giver of all life on Earth.  This is why we have a star on top of our Christmas tree (and why Christianity tries to replace it with an angel).  Traditionally in my town, everyone had a yellow star in their window for the entire month of December.  It symbolizes the Sun.  Of course, Christianity has also appropriated this custom as the “Advent Star”.
  2. Sacred Fire.   Bring light to the darknest night.  The 3 day long solstice fire is likely not practical for many people today living in cities.  However, you can symbolize this solstice fire by lighting a candle every evening for three days.  You can even save this
    Advent Candles

    candle for the next year and use it to light your next year’s candles.  This custom may have evolved into the “Advent Candles”.  Another wonderful custom of ‘bringing light to the darkest night’ is to make ice lanterns with votive candles to light up your yard.

  3. Decorate your home with winter evergreens.  Evergreen trees /plants and winter berries indigenous to the circumpolar northern climate were considered special because they remained green and living during the winter.  Decorating your home with these plants symbolizes life during the darkness.  You can do this by making a wreath using evergreens, low bush cranberries (lignonberries) and floral wire or by bringing in a live evergreen tree.
  4. Feast with Gratitude.  The meal for the
    Winter Solstice Feast with Sun Symbol

    Winter Solstice was prepared with intentions for the New Year.  All food was prepared with love and positive intentions are infused into everything you do to prepare the meal.  A plate of this meal is often served to the “winter spirits”.  This brings me to my next tip…

  5. Offerings to the Winter Spirits. Winter spirits are said to be tricksters, they have the ability to play pranks and tricks on the humans.  By offering the winter spirits food and gifts, we are trying to please them so that they may spare us from their pranks in the New Year.  This custom of making offerings to the winter spirits may have evolved into leaving cookies and milk for Santa Claus.   The winter spirits in both Native American (Ojibwe) and Northern European traditions are quite similar – little  humanoids that look like elves and an old (potentially dangerous) Shaman (or magical being).  It is likely that these spirits have evolved into Santa Claus and his elves.
  6. Gift Giving.  The ultimate celebration of gratitude is GIFT GIVING!  Share your love and light!
Bringing the light to the darkest night with a sacred fire and ice lanterns.

How are you planning on celebrating the Winter Solstice?  I am so interested to hear how others celebrate this holiday.  Please share some of your traditions in the comments section!



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