How To Celebrate The Winter Solstice
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.