Winter Solstice: Dawn at Stonehenge. Image Source: Stellarium.
Today, at 5:30 a.m. UTC or Greenwich Mean Time, the Winter Solstice occurs. Thank Heavens. It's been getting pretty dark out there. In Antarctica, it is Midsummer and the Sun is shining nearly continuously. See the three videos in the bottom of my post here, which explain the Winter Solstice and the origins of Christmas in earlier Sun god worship.
The Solstice is the core of many religions and mythologies in the Northern Hemisphere. In fact, since the dawn of human civilization in the Stone Age, the Winter Solstice and the days that follow it have been celebrated to hail the victory of the Sun, or the powers of light, life and good - in short, basic survival! - over the powers of dark, death and evil.
The Festival of Light: St. Lucy's Day.
The Ancients built monuments like Stonehenge in order to pinpoint the precise location of the Sun at sunrise and sunset at the Solstices and Equinoxes in relation to constellations in the sky. They believed the constellations had spiritual qualities, and associated those qualities with the turn of the seasons. The screenshot above, at the very top of this post (taken from the free program Stellarium), shows you the constellations which will surround the Sun during the Winter Solstice sunrise at Stonehenge in Wiltshire, UK (Latitude 51 degrees 10 minutes 44 seconds North; and Longitude 1 degree 49 minutes and 34 seconds West). The list of old festivals in this season that have been absorbed into our present day celebrations is very long; many are still observed, in whole or in part: Saturnalia; Yule; Mōdraniht; Sadeh; and various pagan bonfire rituals. See a list of related winter festivals here.
Menorahs on Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights.
The Solstice is the longest night of the year. After the Solstice, the Sun hangs in the sky for three days. It then begins to rise in the sky; and by December 25, the days become noticeably longer as a result of the Sun's movement. In the later Roman Empire, the term Deus Sol Invictus meant 'Unconquered Sun God.' This is what we celebrate today and in the coming week, just as our ancestors and ancient predecessors did. The celebration endures throught the ages, no matter what gods we worship: it is the solar gain over darkness in the skies and on Earth. It is a celestial example for our own battles with our demons and, in days when there were no electric lights or artificial heating, it was not just a spiritual metaphor surrounding astronomy: it meant a very real triumph over starvation, which engendered the thanksgiving feasts when the Sun began to climb in the sky again. The feasting also signifies the abundance which is to come.
Austrian Christmas Market, lighting up the heart of a town.
Der Tannenbaum. Traditional German Christmas trees are decorated with candles.
A traditional German Christmas tree with candles.
All the world's great light festivals at this time of year are rituals we perform to cheer the archetypal Sun God on in his (and in older faiths, her) greatest campaign against encroaching darkness. The details and religious explanations vary, but the core idea is the same: Scandinavian St. Lucy's Day (December 13); Jewish Hanukkah (in 2011: December 20-28); the archaic Yule log and the remarkable American and Canadian Yule log cable channel TV show; German Christmas Trees and brightly lit Christmas markets; stringing up lights in town squares and on suburban houses; New Year's fireworks and Hogmanay torches.
Good King Wenceslas brought wood to the poor to light their fires.
The carol and Christmas story around Good King Wenceslas, who is celebrated on the Feast of St. Stephen (December 26) hinge on the saintly Bohemian Duke bringing a poor man winter fuel to start a fire in the latter's hut. Wenceslas is such a powerful and good figure that his page, who follows him, feels solar heat in the Duke's very foosteps. The myth around Wenceslas also promises that when the Czechs see their deepest danger and 'greatest darkness,' he will revive from a sleep of ages, accompanied by a troop of knights, who will together fight their people's battles and light their way. Wenceslas's saintliness reflected other solar qualities; his 'miraculous' good works during winter, the way he selflessly aided the poor who desperately needed help, defined his power. He is a light-sharer, his great charity considered to be synonymous with heat. Other charitable traditions at this time of year emphasize the need for mutual sharing to ensure the community's collective survival.
Catalonian Sun goddess from Hogmanay, or New Year's, street party in Edinburgh, Scotland (2005).
The Hindus also have a lights festival in the late fall, Diwali, which means 'row of lamps.' The lamps are lighted to symbolize the triumph of good over evil. People set off firecrackers to drive away evil spirits. They also put lights up on their houses and in their towns.
Diwali oil lamps, known as diyas.
Diwali lamps, Felicity, Trinidad.
Sadeh fires and torches.
Persian fire and light festivals include Sadeh (now celebrated mainly by Zoroastrians, but still observed in Iran). And Yalda, the old Persian Winter Solstice holiday which celebrates the arrival of Mithra, who was born out of light appearing through the Alborz mountains, a divinity of light and all-seeing truth. Part of the observation of the Solstice traditionally involved literally staying awake to see the Sun rise on the Solstice. Now, people gather, stay awake all night by candlelight and eat the last summer fruits, especially watermelons and pomegranates.
Kwanzaa, a relatively new African-American holiday, still retains ancient traditions at this time of year in a candle lighting ceremony.
In some cases, the solar aspect of the Solstice is symbolized more directly through food. In Asia, the Winter Solstice is celebrated during the Dōngzhì Festival. The term means 'winter's extreme' and is marked by special feasting. All of these traditions describe how our small lights combine to encourage the Sun god to survive and win his final battle of the year. And because he survives, so do we.
WPIX New York, the original Yule log looped television programme. Video Source: Youtube.