Friday, December 21st is the winter solstice. It is the shortest day of the year (and the longest night) meaning it is going to get better from here on out! Every religion seems to celebrate something during this time which makes it really busy. But if possible, try to celebrate the solstice like the ancients – eat, drink, and tell stories around a fire!
Ancient people spent most of their time outdoors, so the seasons and weather played a very important part in their lives. Because of this they had a great reverence for, and even worshiped the sun. The Norsemen of Northern Europe saw the sun as a wheel that changed the seasons. It was from the word for wheel, houl, that the word ‘yule’ is thought to have come. To celebrate the return of the sun, the Norsemen lit bonfires, told stories and drank sweet ale.
The ancient Romans also held a festival to celebrate the rebirth of the year. Saturnalia ran for seven days from the 17th of December. It was a time of widespread revelry and debauchery in which societal roles were overturned, with masters serving their slaves and servants being allowed to insult their masters. Mask-wearing and play-acting were also part of Saturnalia’s reversals, with each household electing a King of Misrule. The festival also involved decorating houses with greenery, lighting candles, holding processions and giving presents.
For the Druids (Celtic priests), oaks were seen as sacred and the winter fruit of the mistletoe was a symbol of life in the dark winter months. They would cut the mistletoe that grew on the oak tree and give it as a blessing.
It was also the Druids who began the tradition of the yule log. The Celts thought that the sun stood still for twelve days and during this time a log was lit to conquer the darkness, banish evil spirits, and bring luck for the coming year.
The Iranian festival of Yalda is celebrated on the longest night of the year. In pre-Islamic times, it heralded the birth of Mithra, the ancient sun god, and his triumph over darkness. Zoroastrian lore holds that evil spirits wander the earth and the forces of the destructive spirit Ahriman are strongest on this long night. People are encouraged to stay up most of the night in the company of one another, eating, talking, and sharing poetry and stories, in order to avoid any brushes with dark entities.
Even if you don’t torch a log or attempt to rhyme all night long, try to take a minute to go outside on Friday to enjoy the change of seasons. Because,
“What good is the warmth of summer without the cold of winter to give it sweetness?” -John Steinbeck