In the United States the exact moment of the Winter Solstice as defined by scientists—when the Sun is shining farthest to the south directly over the Tropic of Capricorn—occurs at 3:47 pm Central Standard Time today. You can figure out its arrival in your neck of the woods. The fact is that last night was the longest night of the year and today the sky will begin to grow light earlier each day.This Winter Solstice mandala incorporates traditional pagan symbols--the Druidic Oak as the Tree of Life festooned with ever green holly and features the glow of a full moon between its branches.
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, Native American 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.Modern British Druids attempt to recreate ancient rituals at Solstice dawn at Stonehenge when the risinug Sun strikes an altar stone. Of course, their ritual is guess work as no detailed descriptions of ancient Druid rites have survived.
Buried in traditional folklore, swathed in symbolism, and steeped in metaphor, Christmas and Chanukah share the same impulses as Nordic 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.
Other celebrations were connected to the solstice or mid-winter including the Feast of Santa Lucia as it is celebrated in Scandinavia, St. Stephen’s or Wren Day, New Years, and even Kwanza.
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.Winter Solstice is a popular theme for neo-pagan art. Here a goddess balances the light and the dark wearing a crown of holly and a stag's horn. Alternatively, the Solstice is often personified by the Lord of Winter, the winter guise of the Green Man.
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.
Well more than a millennium later the English poet Christina Rossetti, a member of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, and a devout Christian drew the clear connection between Christmas and solstice in her poem In the Bleak Midwinter.Composer, singer, and pianist Tori Amos recorded a whole album of Solstice songs.
In addition to the carol that was set to Rossetti’s poem which is now associated with the Solstice, modern neo-paganism has given rise to a number of solstice hymns. Today we will celebrate with one of the loveliest, A Winter’s Carol by Tori Amos which she featured on her 2009 album Midwinter Graces. In 2013 she reworked the song as Coronation, the closing number for her London musical The Light Princess which featured her songs and lyrics and the libretto by Australian playwright and screenwriter Samuel Adamson. Since the highly regarded Royal National Theatre production never made it to Broadway—it was considered too esoteric—the original version is much better known to American audiences and is treasured by neo-pagans.