How To Celebrate The Winter Solstice

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Ancient traditions of the winter solstice


“In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.” - Albert Camus


The sun, megaliths, mistletoe, holly, ivy and yule logs! Just some of the ancient traditions that, although now more associated with Christmas, really belong to the winter solstice.

For our ancestors the time of the solstice may have been a time of hardship depending on how well the crops had grown and the livestock survived during the previous months. However, it was also a time of celebration as it marked the re-birth of the sun, the days becoming longer and the hint of spring not that far off.

The re-birth of the sun is of course marked in awesome ways by the ancient stone megaliths that were aligned with the summer and winter solstices. For example, Newgrange in Ireland has a slender needle of light shooting through the narrow, dark entrance to the small aperture at the main opening of the monument. Such buildings show the importance of this date to our ancestors. In fact so important was this time that many traditions and legends grew up around the 21st December, later mingling with the modern Christmas Day. In this hub we'll take a look at some of the traditions for the winter solstice.

Many people still visit traditional ancestral places at the time of the winter solstice.
Many people still visit traditional ancestral places at the time of the winter solstice. | Source
An early 20th century Christmas card showing holly and evergreen tree. This tradition of evergreens goes back thousands of years to winter solstice celebrations
An early 20th century Christmas card showing holly and evergreen tree. This tradition of evergreens goes back thousands of years to winter solstice celebrations | Source
Enjoying Christmas under a decoration made from mistletoe.
Enjoying Christmas under a decoration made from mistletoe. | Source

Mistletoe, holly and ivy at the winter solstice

Mistletoe, holly and ivy are such popular decorations at Christmas that it's easy to forget their Pagan origins. Basically the evergreen traditions for the winter solstice are symbolic representations of the birth-life-death cycle.

Living trees were brought into the home in order to give warmth and shelter to the nature spirits and in return, the home would be given - hopefully - good luck and protection from evil spirits. The trees would be decorated with candles and food to encourage the spirits to visit the tree and make a home for the winter with the family.

There are strong hints in very old English manuscripts that men and women would have singing contests held at midwinter. The men would sing carols praising the virtues of the holly (the holly was believed to have masculine qualities) and the women would sing about ivy (which was given feminine attributes). The two were only reconciled under the mistletoe that represented vitality, fertility and romance. It's believed that over the centuries this tradition remained in the form of the kiss under a branch of mistletoe.

Holly

In addition to the above there is also specific beliefs relating to the holly. Some of these traditions are:

  • It was very unlucky to bring holly into the home at anytime other than Yule/Christmas. It was also considered to bring bad luck to cut a holly bush down.
  • The evergreen leaves and red berries were symbolic of eternity and power.
  • Holly was used to prevent destruction and to keep evil spirits away.
  • Holly was often planted in front of a house to bring good luck and was thought to protect the house from storms.
  • In folklore and Pagan traditions, the holly symbolically represents the spirit of vegetation and the waning forces of nature that commences from mid-summer to the winter solstice. This symbolism is often represented as the 'Holly King'. At the winter solstice he is ritually defeated by the 'Oak King' who now presides over the seasons until he is defeated by the 'Holly King' at the summer solstice. The 'Holly King' was probably the very early prototype of the present day Father Christmas/Santa Claus.

Ivy

Like holly, the ivy also has many beliefs associated with it. A few of these traditions are:

  • Like the other evergreens, ivy also represented eternity and the immortal soul.
  • To have more holly than ivy in the home at Christmas would bring you bad luck.
  • Placing a small piece of ivy under your pillow makes you dream of your future true love.
  • Ivy is the symbol of the Roman god of Wine - Bacchus.
  • Ivy was believed to be able to cure drunkenness.
  • If ivy did not grow on someone's grave it was believed that their spirit was restless.
  • Ivy can also symbolise connections and friendships.

Mistletoe

This is perhaps one of the most common plants used today at Christmas and again there are many traditions associated with it. Here are just a few:

  • The Druids held a five day sacred festival after the new moon, immediately following the winter solstice. Mistletoe from their sacred oak played a significant part in these rituals.
  • In the middle ages it was hung from above doorways and ceilings - but not to encourage a kiss. This ritual was to ward off evil spirits.
  • The mistletoe plant in the language of the Druids means 'all-healing' and was used to treat many ailments.
  • British Bronze Age buriels have been discovered with remnants of mistletoe and oak being buried with the body. In pre-historic times both these plants were held to be sacred.
  • It was thought to be an omen of disaster if mistletoe fell from a tree.
  • Mistletoe was also believed to prevent people having nightmares and migraine headaches.

Using evergreens to decorate a yule log brings in other ancient traditions of the winter solstice.
Using evergreens to decorate a yule log brings in other ancient traditions of the winter solstice. | Source
It's simple to make your own yule log. Find a log and basically just add your own ideas and decorations.
It's simple to make your own yule log. Find a log and basically just add your own ideas and decorations. | Source

Making your own Victorian Mistletoe ball

Making your own Yule Log
1. Look for a log of wood with a nice round shape. The size depends on where you want to put it in the house. You can also use a yule log as a centre piece for your Christmas dinner table.
2. Decide what you want to use to decorate the log - holly, ivy, pine, cones. Any plants can be used but including some evergreens brings in other ancient traditions of the winter solstice.
3. Choose additional decorations if you want to use them such as tinsel, bells, fairies, angels or anything you please.
4. Use a candle or other light source to represent the burning of the log.
5. Place the log in the area you have chosen for it. Then decorate the log with the items you have collected and chosen. Lastly put the candle in place. For my yule log, I've placed the candle at the back, making it steady by using a small candle holder.
6. It's traditional to place the evergreens and other plants used back outside when the solstice and Christmas are over.

The yule log and the winter solstice

(poem by: Robert Herrick 1591-1674)

The Yule Log

Come, bring with a noise,
My merry, merry boys,

The Christmas log to the firing;
While my good dame, she
Bids ye all be free,

And drink to your heart's desiring.
With the last year's brand
Light the new block, and

For good success in his spending,
On your Psaltries play,
That sweet luck may

Come while the log is tending.

Yule Log

There are many traditions associated with the winter solstice. One of the best known is the 'yule log'. The celebration in Britain may initially have come from Viking influence.

Traditionally the logs were either ash or oak. In Britain the yule log would have been dragged home by horse or oxen and people would sing songs while they walked home. The log itself would then be prepared. One tradition was to sprinkle the log with grain or cider and then decorate it with evergreens.

The symbolics behind the yule log is one of health, prosperity and productivity for the coming seasons. The new log was traditionally lit from the remnants of the old one that had been kept safely from the previous year. This ceremony was taken very seriously as it was believed the yule log had powerful magic to bring luck and prosperity. The log was burned for 12 hours or in some traditions it was for 12 days - the origin of the 12 days of Christmas. In addition the yule log, when burning, was protection against evil spirits.

As well as a piece of the wood being saved for next year, the ashes were also believed to have sacred properties and were scattered over the fields in the hope that this would help their crops to grow strong and healthy.

Not everyone today is able to burn a log on the fire. However, you can have your own version of the yule log to bring good luck and health into your household. Instead of burning the yule log, use one or more candles around it to symbolise light and fire.

Candles not only represent fire and the sun, but they are also symbolic of spirituality, protection and healing. For your log, it's obviously best to use wood that comes from your garden, managed forests or if you have a local wood it's usually easy to find an old log lying around somewhere - needless to say avoid private property!

Celebrating the winter solstice is basically bringing into your home some of the older traditions of the winter season. Naturally most people would perhaps like to put a modern slant onto the solstice celebration and that's always a good thing. The more personalised any celebration is, the more meaning you can get out of it. For example, as the sun will start to get stronger, think about how you can bring your own light back into you and your family's life? Do you need to spend more quality time together? Do you have a need to improve or even change your career prospects? This is the time of a symbolic death - death of the old and the birth of the new. A time to think about and develop new aspects of your life.

The winter solstice can also be a time for spiritual work. Lighting a candle for example as a thought and symbol of love and hope to all those who are alone at Christmas or who have suffered a bereavement is a great way to give your spirit and heart a lift during the dark winter months. The solstice is about the celebration of death and endings, but it's also about life, love and fertility. The winter solstice is a beautiful and magical way to bring some light back into this wonderful, but troubled, world of ours. Merry Yule and Merry Christmas.

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Comments 16 comments

Mrs Jil Manning profile image

Mrs Jil Manning 3 years ago from Sussex, England

Merry yule to you too! I shall be burning a very special yule log on Friday; a beam from a dear friend's house that was partially demolished in the summer, but that's another story.


Seeker7 profile image

Seeker7 3 years ago from Fife, Scotland Author

Hi Mrs Jil Manning - many thanks for stopping by and have a great time at Yule! Here's hoping that the burning of the log will transform your friend's disaster into something positive!!


Alastar Packer profile image

Alastar Packer 3 years ago from North Carolina

Celebrating the Winter Solstice with you Helen is where I want to be. Wish I could jump on in of those big jet planes and fly right over. Man, the good times we could have on the solstice. Up and Awesome m'lady!


Alastar Packer profile image

Alastar Packer 3 years ago from North Carolina

Besides the needle of light Newgrange also has a those spiral engravings in the stone which is intriguing considering all the spirals we've had appearing in the skies recently. This is some awesome info on the plants and vines of the winter solstice, Helen. Had no knowledge of the yule log's origins whatsoever. Merry Christmas and a very happy new year my good friend!


peachpurple profile image

peachpurple 3 years ago from Home Sweet Home

For chinese customs, winter solstice is boiling glutinous rice ball sweet soup and drink it before the new year. Marks welcoming the winter and acknowledge you are a year older. Quite different from americans.


Frank Atanacio profile image

Frank Atanacio 3 years ago from Shelton

a merry to you and yours what a wonderful share.. and what is a yule log.. really..LOL awesome seeker7


Noemi Beres profile image

Noemi Beres 3 years ago from Cyprus

I had been living in Ireland for 7 years and the winter solstice is very special to me. We visited Newgrange twice while we were living there and it's the best place to experience winter solstice there.


Seeker7 profile image

Seeker7 3 years ago from Fife, Scotland Author

Well thank you m'Lord - think we would have a great solstice!! LOL!


Seeker7 profile image

Seeker7 3 years ago from Fife, Scotland Author

Hi Alastar! I'm glad that you noticed the spirals they are awesome! When I see these on stone carvings I always get goose bumps - in a nice way. They remind me of one of the most incredible 'dreams?' I had a few years ago. The landscape was full of grass - and this stuff was soft and a beautiful emerald green! There were 3 rocks (we always seem to have the number '3' as a strong association of the mystical in the West), anyway on these beautiful rocks were beautifully carved spirals. At the time I knew the meanings but can only recall one that they represented eternity. The meaning went much deeper, but as usual with such experiences, the knowledge seems to dissipate on returning to the physical.

Now, I'v haven't heard about these spirals in the sky? Is this over the USA? I don't think the UK has had phenomena like this but I'll check - you've really got my brain buzzing!!!LOL! A very Merry Christmas to you and your loved ones Alastar and have a smashing New Year!


Seeker7 profile image

Seeker7 3 years ago from Fife, Scotland Author

Hi peachpurple, many thanks for the information - very interesting.


Seeker7 profile image

Seeker7 3 years ago from Fife, Scotland Author

Hi Frank!! I think we would both enjoy the Yule Log of old - a huge piece of tree brought into the home, set alight and basically people would drink their home-made alcohol brew to their hearts content but more importantly they would sit and listen to the poets!!! Have a Merry one on me!!!


Seeker7 profile image

Seeker7 3 years ago from Fife, Scotland Author

Hi Noemi Beres, many thanks for stopping by and glad that you enjoyed the hub. I have to say I'm very jealous - LOL! - I've never been able to visit New Grange in Ireland and it's a one thing I really want to do at some time, especially if it's at the solstice!! I also agree with you, the winter solstice is so special and very, very magical!!


Alastar Packer profile image

Alastar Packer 3 years ago from North Carolina

Now that is very interesting with your 'dream.' Eternity. You may have been on a different radio dial for a while there my friend, and you know what i mean by that. These spirals have occurred in Russia, Norway, China and other places over the last few. You-tube spirals in the sky or something. Many researchers believe them to be dimension portal openings and not always occurring naturally if you know what is meant by that too. Smashing New Year ha ha- oh you home Scots!


Rosemay50 profile image

Rosemay50 3 years ago from Hawkes Bay - NewZealand

I read this with interest as I had no idea of the significance of the symbolism of any of these plants. Experiencing the elebration of winter solstice is something I would put on my wish, or do before I go list.

I saw something that piqued my curiosity two days ago a glowing elipse overhead which I thought must be a searchlight or something till I realised there was no beam.

Thank you for your friendship and support through 2012 and looking forward to reading more of your hubs in 2013.

Wishing you and yours a joyous and peaceful Christmas and all the very best for 2013. May the coming year be all you expect.


Seeker7 profile image

Seeker7 3 years ago from Fife, Scotland Author

Hi Alastar, this is really interesting stuff about the spirasl but first as to the dream. The 'dream' certainly didn't feel like any usual one I've ever had - it was amazing and it would be great if I had been 'on a different radio dial' - what a lovely way to put it!!! LOL!

That's really interesting about the spirals being thought of as portals. My understanding is, is that if portals don't naturally occur in some areas in the physical worlds, then they are created either by actions from the physical or the other dimension's side. Is this good news or bad news? I can't make up my mind. There are some occult theories and some from the paranormal/UFO communities that the physical worlds will eventually evolve into pure energy - ie -spirit form as our main form of being. This is supposed to happen when we 'evolve' - this is a bit of a bummer as I can't see that much evolution in the world today! So is it good news or bad news? I need to think about this!

Alastar, many thanks for the fascinating info and as we say in Scotland 'hiv a guid yin!' - which basically means have a great New Year!!!


Seeker7 profile image

Seeker7 3 years ago from Fife, Scotland Author

Hi Rosemay, as always lovely to hear from.

What a fascinating experience to have!! It might have been something natural looking odd - but then again??? I always find lights with no beams very interesting since on occasion they can turn into something quite fascinating!

Thank you for leaving such a lovely comment as well Rosemay - and thank you for your support as well. It makes all the hard work worthwhile!!

Have a lovely Christmas and heartfelt blessings for the New Year! As they say in Scotland - 'lang may yir lum reek!"

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