The Winter Solstice

by Joan Smith York

Here in Reno, the solstice will occur at around 9 pm on Dec 21. The Winter Solstice is an astronomical event that has been celebrated by humans for thousands of years. For our pre-industrial ancestors, the winter was a time when they feared running out of the food and warmth they needed to survive. The darkening of the light that began with the fall equinox could make things seem pretty bleak, if not for the promise of the sun’s return. Ancient peoples knew of these natural cycles. Even before they had instruments to track the sun, a few days after the solstice, they could notice a slight elevation of the sun’s path. That is why celebrations were often timed for around December 25. By the Neolithic period, humans around the earth were building monuments to track the sun’s progress and predict when the solstices would occur, such as Stonehenge. Another example is in Newgrange, Ireland, where a large circular mound with a stone passageway and interior chambers was built around 3000 BC to 2500 BC and aligned so that the sunrise on the solstice floods the chamber with light.

Many different ancient cultures imbued the solstice with spiritual meaning. One common theme was to associate the death and rebirth of the sun with the death and rebirth of a deity. These included Osiris in Ancient Egypt, Dionysos in ancient Greece and many others. In many cultures, rituals celebrations developed. In ancient Rome, Saturnalia, then the “Birthday of the Unconquered Sun” were celebrated in pre-Christian times. Ancient Druids, the spiritual leaders of the Celtic world, led their people in the celebration of Alban Arthuan, later known as Yule. It was known as the time of the serpent, a time of transformation. The Sun God journeys through the underworld to learn the secrets of death and life and bring out souls to be reincarnated. Winter Solstice celebration traditions also developed in native cultures in north and south America, including Pueblo, Hopi and Incan tribes, as well as in Iranian Zoroastrian, and Jewish traditions. Many ancient cultures had a similar spiritual meaning for the winter solstice, and humanity always cared about the rebirth of light.

Of course, Christmas is one of the major celebrations these days, but it was not always that way. In the fourth century, Christian leaders chose December 25 to celebrate the birth of Yeshua of Nazareth, also known as Jesus Christ because this was already the date recognized throughout the Roman Empire as the birthday of various pagan gods. It took centuries before the tradition was accepted. Many Christmas symbols came from the ancient Celts, including the yule log, holly, mistletoe, and the Christmas tree.

So what does this ancient, cross-cultural spiritual tradition mean for us? It is easy to lose touch with these traditions in our world of electric lights, global markets, 24-hour shopping, not to mention our seasonal focus on getting and spending. With our advanced science and certain knowledge that the sun will return and of exactly when the solstice will occur each year, it is easy to be oblivious to the movement of the sun. However, we do so at our own loss. The solstice is a powerful reminder of natural cycles and that in order to begin anew, the old must end. The return of the light can connect us to our inner journey to enlightenment.

The word “solstice” comes from the Latin solstritium, from sol, sun, and stritium, a stoppage. It is a time of great stillness and quiet, a natural time to stop and listen, to rest and reflect. There is an opportunity here to embrace the darkness as a spiritually transformative space. Remember, the dark night of the soul often comes before spiritual growth. Only in facing our shadow, our wounds, our fears, can we can overcome them. Once we consciously close the door to the past, then we can experience a spiritual rebirth and renew our connection to life. As Albert Camus wrote, “In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.” We each have the opportunity now to find similar insights.

Personally, I plan to take advantage of this sacred time to consciously release the past year and set my intentions for the next one. I find rituals to be extremely helpful, as they speak to the unconsciousness mind and the spirit within us. I found a great ritual online called “Winter Solstice—a Bridge to New Beginnings,” by Syma Kharalon, and I made handouts for those who want them. The ritual has five steps, which you can adapt to your beliefs and needs.

The first step is to “process the past” by giving thanks for the good experiences and also recalling the bad ones. The idea is that making our fears conscious is cathartic and allows us to heal and move forward. The next step is to “release the darkness,” which involves finding the lesson in our difficulties and forgiving all involved, including ourselves. The third step is “clear the space,” which involves smudging and bathing to release old energy. The fourth step “Let there be light,” and involves aligning with spirit and our higher self. The final step is “Prepare a new path,” where we write down our inspired intentions as affirmations.

I encourage each of you to use these practices, or to find your own way to use the special energy of the winter solstice to assist your spiritual development.

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