Ring Out the Solstice Bells--Jethro Tull
Call it Solstice, Yule, Meán Geimhridh, or any name you choose, today is the shortest day of the year and the official beginning of winter. Tomorrow the Sun begins its annual return. Despite claims otherwise, Solstice is the Reason for the Season—the overt or disguised inspiration of most Northern Hemisphere Festivals of Light clustered around this date. To celebrate we turn to Jethro Tull’s classic 1977 album Songs from the Woods, Ian Anderson’s turn from jazz-infused rock to an embrace of his English roots and folk identities is a fitting carol for the day.
In most so-called pagan traditions around the Northern Hemisphere there were two ways to celebrate the Solstice. Some lit fires in the darkest night to summon the return of the sun. Others gathered at dawn to in some way capture the first light of that return. The latter often involved human construction on or in which that light would strike a significant stone or altar. Think pyramids in Egypt and the pre-Columbian Americas, Stonehenge, Greek temples, medicine wheels, certain Medieval Cathedrals, and far simpler wooden structures in Northern Europe and Siberia. Either way, those who observe or re-create such rituals have found a way to do so.
Even if you do not observe the pagan doings—or shun them as the devil’s work—chances are that you to have been or will be celebrating the solstice yourself.
The Holly King or Winter Sage and a Solstice goddess are male and female personifications of Yule in modern neo-paganism.
Buried in traditional folklore, swathed in symbolism, and steeped in metaphor, Christmas and Chanukah share the same impulses as Yule and its Celtic and ancient British cousins, Meán Geimhridh and Meán Geimhridhh beloved by contemporary neo-pagans of one stripe or another. At their core there was in each of them a physical or metaphorical re-kindling of the light at the darkest hour of the year offering a glimmering of hope at a time of cold and starvation.
Archeological evidence shows that the event—the shortest day and longest night of the year, when the sun’s daily maximum elevation in the sky is the lowest—was marked, often using physical constructions to capture the rising sun, in Neolithic times across widely separated cultures in Europe, the Near East, Asia, and North America. Stonehenge is just the most famous example.
English Druids and other neo-pagans celebrate the winter solstice annually at dawn at Stonehenge.
While the trappings of Christmas—the Yule log, the holly and the ivy, the Christmas tree, mistletoe, wassailing and other customs are commonly known to be borrowed from pagan celebrations, the metaphor of the birth of the Son, bringing light and salvation to the world is often overlooked. Among still nervous orthodox Christians, drawing parallels to pagan belief is still actively discouraged.
The early Church actively squelched efforts to confabulate the Feast of the Nativity with the Festival of Sol Invictus, introduced to the Roman Empire in the Third Century under the Emperor Elagabalus. It was a religious revolution that briefly upended Jupiter as the primary Roman God and put in his place the Invincible Sun, which combined the characteristics and cult practices of several sun gods including Syrian Elah-Gabal, the Greek Apollo, and Mithras, a soldier god of Persian origin.
The feast was set on December 25, during the Roman holiday period following Saturnalia. Later, under the Emperor Aurelian as Christianity grew in influence and importance, attempts were made to incorporate worship of the Christ child into the cult as an incarnation of Sol. When the Church became ascendant in the Empire, it did all it could to squelch the festival, but like many popular pagan customs, it was so integrated into many daily lives that it inevitably influenced how Christmas, by then assigned to the same calendar day, was observed.
Ring out Solstice Bells was featured on Jethro Tull's 1977 album Songs from the Woods featuring Ian Anderson.
Ian Anderson is a Scottish born multi-instrumentalist and singer best known as the creative force behind the innovative and influential British folk/jazz/fusion/progressive rock band Jethro Tull. Many of the band’s best known songs evoke a magical, even mystical spirit. That is certainly the case in Ring Out Solstice Bells featuring percussion and Anderson’s signature flute.