Happy Winter Solstice & Good Fertility Wishes!December 21, 2010Carole 2 Comments »
On one December day each year in the Northern hemisphere, the earth is tilted at its furthest limit, leaning away from the sun. Today, Dec 21, at exactly 6:38PM EST, those of us in the Northern hemisphere will be tilted furthest from the sun and experience the fewest hours of daylight and the longest night of the year. Today is the winter solstice, ironically, the official start of winter, even as we experience the shortest day of the year, with each day lengthening from this point on.
The winter solstice has inspired human rituals of rebirth and renewal originating thousands of years ago, well in advance of today’s main religions. You can find more information on the meaning of winter solstice in the article Cultural Celebrations: the summer and winter solstice. Did you know solstice means “standing-still-sun”? Because of the earth’s tilt, the sun is at it’s lowest arc in the sky.
Over 5000 year ago, 500 years before the Egyptians built the pyramids and before Stonehenge, ancient humans built an underground structure to honor the time of the winter solstice. Called Newgrange, it was built 40km north of today’s Dublin, Ireland. Newgrange is a prehistoric passage tomb, built underground and covered on the outside by a large grassy mound. It was precisely built and oriented so that on one day every year on the shortest sunlight day, the sun’s weak rays would enter at a precise angle so that the whole underground passageway was illuminated from one end to another. This flood of golden sunlight illuminates the chamber for only 17 minutes, one day a year. Obviously, this day has held great significance for human beings since early times and these early rituals recognizing the winter solstice are prevalent in many if not all, human cultures. You can see a diagram of the passageway and read more about Newgrange in this BBC article . The more famous Stonehenge was designed to align with both the winter and summer solstices.
Interestingly, this year’s winter solstice coincides with a full lunar eclipse, a coincidence that last occurred 450 years ago. You can see time-lapse video of today’s early morning full lunar eclipse here.
Why was the winter solstice so important to ancient–and not so ancient– people? When you stop and imagine a life before electricity. it becomes painfully obvious. Imagine being warmed only by the sun, simple shelters like caves and simple coverings made from animal hides. If you were fortunate, you might enjoy the warm and light from the occasional fire. In the winter, you were probably cold most of the time and longing for the sun. You lived in the cold and dark except when you could build a fire for heat and light once the sun went down. You had a few hours each day to find food and shelter before the sun disappeared and the world became cold and dark again. It was a dangerous time. Anyone who has lived through a power outage quickly comes to appreciate the wonders of modern life that we take for granted.
The Yule time or winter solstice was celebrated as a sign of the imminent return (rebirth) of the sun to the earth. Some cultures believed the sun had to be lured back to illuminate and warm the earth once more and devised special rituals to honor sun gods and goddesses. The winter solstice was celebrated as a sign that the worst was over and days would begin to lengthen again. Solstice celebrations were held in anticipation of the earth’s renewed fertility in the spring when plants would arise from the ground to feed the people.
In this interesting article written by C. Austin, some of the traditions arising from the celebration of the winter solstice are described. The word Yule is thought to arise from the Norse word for”wheel” invoking the concept of cycling seasons. The Yule log was usually a large gnarly log burned outside or in later versions brought inside and burned to provide heat and light.
Today, my daughter and I made our annual baked Yule log to celebrate the season. You can see our 2010 Yule log here under our Christmas tree. It’s a chocolate sponge cake baked in a jelly roll pan and rolled up with whipped cream frosting on the inside and chocolate frosting on the outside. One end is cut off and attached to the side like a tree branch. Marzipan mushrooms and leaves decorate the outside. It’s a lot of fun to make and to eat!
Much of winter solstice rituals seem to be entwined with ideas about fertility, birth and rebirth and female power. The rebirth of the sun and the birth of sun goddesses are plentiful in the myths of this solstice season. In the blog, This time- This space, there is an interesting description of the plethora of goddesses of light born at the winter solstice across many ancient cultures. In this article by Michealin Daughtery, he describes how rituals observed by the Ancient Egyptians, Romans, Germanic peoples, Anglo Saxons, and Celts arose from celebration of the winter solstice.
Christianity, as it was gaining popularity and becoming a major religion, incorporated many of the existing winter solstice rituals and beliefs into the Christmas story to make Christianity more palatable to converts who enjoyed their original winter solstice rituals and were reluctant to give them up. Early practices of decorating a yule log or tree with trinkets and candles were adopted by Christianity — you might recognize these early rituals in today’s Christmas tree.
The evergreen, holly, ivy and mistletoe are all winter plants that symbolize fertility and lasting life. A kiss under the mistletoe was supposed to impart fertility on the couple. The mistletoe is a symbiotic plant or parasite that grows on deciduous trees such as host apple or oak trees. In “Pucker up, it’s a bumper year for mistletoe“, you can read about the mistletoe’s possible extinction in some parts of England because the old apple orchards that provided host trees for this lovely parasite are giving way to industrial large scale apple orchards which have no room for mistletoe.
In my random googling through the blogosphere, I can across a Just Mommies blog post which invokes winter solstice fertility blessings on women seeking to conceive, especially today when lunar eclipse and winter solstice coincide. It just goes to show that ancient beliefs are strong and persistent- especially those that tap into our deepest desires to have children. In this blog, I try to empower women (and men too) to better understand how high tech modern medicine might help them conceive, but there is a place for non-science too. A hug from a friend or family member, someone’s kind wishes or prayers of any kind connect us to one another, heal us, make us part of a loving community and maybe play their own role in helping us conceive.
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