Yesterday was the winter solstice, the Druid’s Christmas, the shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere with the sun tracing its lowest arc across the bleak winter sky, its life-giving energy at lowest ebb. But rather than being a time of despair, the solstice is a time of hope and new beginning because it only gets better from here on out for the next six months.
The festivities were festive, most impressive and ancient at Newgrange in Ireland:
- Over 24,000 people have sought a coveted ticket to allow them watch the phenomenon of the rays of the rising midwinter solstice sun beaming deep into Ireland’s Stone Age burial mound this year.
But, as always, only 20 people were being allowed to witness the 17-minute phenomenon at the Newgrange tomb in County Meath on Tuesday — because that’s the most the 30 metre long chamber can hold.
It is believed that Ireland’s Stone Age ancestors built the tomb with an alignment so that the rising sun shines on the ashes of their dead deep in the tomb only around the time of the shortest day of the year.
….The recent surge in worldwide demand to witness Ireland oldest “calendar clock” in operation has astonished the government’s Office of Public Works which cares for the country’s heritage.
….Local schoolchildren pick 100 winners from the application list, and they are allowed in on five days either side of the solstice.
“Newgrange is now one of the most exclusive places to be in the world to witness a winter solstice sunrise,” a spokeswoman said.
….”It is a wonderful feeling waiting in the dark of the chamber on a cold winter’s morning for something that was planned 5,000 years ago.”
Now one of Ireland’s leading tourist attractions, Newgrange is believed to be the oldest continuously roofed building in the world. It was built 1,000 years before Britain’s Stonehenge and 500 years before Egypt’s pyramids.
The whole Boyne River valley area around Newgrange is rich in Ireland’s ancient history. It is thought that the first people settled there 7,000 years ago [AFP]
But the New Agers gathered in NYC as well:
- The sunrise ceremony, .. held at Pier 16 at the South Street Seaport, .. [included] a crowd of 100-plus people pounding drums and chanting incantations such as “reverence, reverence, reverence.”
“We used to light a bonfire too, but South Street Seaport won’t let us do it on their historic wooden pier,” says “Mama” Donna Henes, the 59-year-old self-described “urban shaman” from Brooklyn who [led] the 30th annual ceremony.
….From her point of view, solstice celebrations are, she says, simply pagan ancestors of all the light-oriented holidays that we celebrate at this time of year, including Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa.
“Like Christmas, the solstice celebration is all about light,” she says. “It’s about the mythology of bring back the sun.” [NY Post]
And in Menlo Park, CA:
- Under sunny skies on a coastal hilltop in Menlo Park, beaming pink and white camellias were tucked, one by one, into a lightweight reed boat to be launched into San Francisco Bay.
….”It’s a way of offering back to the Earth what we don’t want to carry anymore,” said Menlo Park resident Meg Beeler, who helped lead the afternoon ceremony sponsored by the Foundation for Global Community. “The Earth composts it all.”
For much of the hourlong ritual, some three dozen community residents stood or moved in a circle. At one point, each took a handful of corn meal from a center basket. “Connect it with something that could truly transform if you allow it to let go,” said co-leader Ginny Anderson. With that, the celebrators sprinkled the corn meal onto the ground — “giving back to the Earth,” as one put it.
“Here goes my despair,” Anderson said, stomping her feet vigorously.
Later, the group rattled “seeds of light” — a husk of corn; a maraca; or, more commonly, a seed-filled white film canister adorned with a green peace sign.
The revelry ended with participants joining hands and regathering in a circle. In silence, they passed around the handmade boat, taking turns placing into it their individual burdens and wishes in the form of bright camellias.
….Gathered at the bay’s edge, the group watched as Beeler sprinkled the ceremonial vessel with waters from around the world. Loaded with their wishes for the coming year, the boat was supposed to float into San Francisco Bay but instead — presumably because the tide was low — ended up stuck in a muddy bank several feet from the water’s edge. [Mercury News]
And here’s some interesting info on the continuity between winter solstice and Christmas traditions:
- The most popular pagan celebration of the winter solstice is Yule, which has been celebrated for centuries and continues today, mostly by the Wiccan religion … On the night of Yule, the Goddess gives birth to the new sun, restarting the cycle of the seasons. It is a time of introspection and planning, and of peace and charity. The coming of darkness on Yule is a time to end problems, tie up loose strings and heal oneself in preparation for the light that signifies a new year.
Wiccans celebrate Yule as one of the eight sabbats of the year. They begin celebrations at sunset on the winter solstice to honor the start of winter, a new sun, and a new year. Often bonfires are lit and renewal and birth rituals are performed in celebration of the event. Dreams and other divination resources, such as Tarot or runes, are consulted for wisdom and prophecy.
Almost every early society had some type of religious winter solstice celebration. When Christianity arose, new Christians wanted a date to celebrate the birth of the son of God — Christmas. But newly converted Christians were still tempted to hold pagan winter solstice celebrations. Pope Julius I in the fourth century A.D. designated Dec. 25 for Christmas as an attempt to override the pagan celebrations — and, in many cases, it did. The popularity of the Christmas celebration evolved as gradually as the spread of Christianity, usually incorporating many pagan traditions. Because of the paganism involved in Christmas, Martin Luther and John Calvin abhorred it; the Puritans refused to acknowledge it; and it was even made illegal in Boston in 1659.
Many traditions thought to be associated solely with Christmas actually originated from pagan holidays and are still involved in Yule celebrations. For example, the Yule Nativity set, instead of featuring Mary, Joseph and Baby Jesus, would include Mother Nature, Father Time and the Baby Sun God. Other traditions derived from Yule include caroling, presents, decorated trees, Yule logs, mistletoe, holly, ivy, magical reindeer — and even the red and green colors of the season.
Christmas Traditions Derived From Paganism
Yule Logs of ash or oak are carved or chalked with a figure of the sun or the horned god. They are burned at dusk on Yule as a graphic representation of the rebirth of the sun god within the sacred fire of the mother goddess. If burned less than 12 hours, the family would have bad luck all year. Traditionally, a portion of the log is kept to protect the home throughout the year and then used to light next year’s fire.
One theory is that the Yule log eventually became the Yule tree/Christmas tree, and was symbolically lit by being decorated with candles. There is contention, though, that the Yule tree has a different history.
Decorated trees have been in existence for centuries, though there are different stories as to their origin. It is said that evergreens were cherished as a natural symbol of rebirth and life amid the whiteness of winter. One story is that pagan families would bring a live tree into the home so the wood spirits would have a place to keep warm during the cold winter months, and bells hung in the limbs would ring if a spirit were present. Food and treats were hung on the branches for spirits to eat, and a five-point star, a symbol of the five elements, was placed atop the tree.
Mistletoe has not always been used exclusively for kissing. Norsemen viewed the plant as a symbol of peace and used it as medicine. Celtic Druids believed it to be a magical plant — and an aphrodisiac. Some say that the Celts began the tradition of kissing beneath the mistletoe, but other say that is a purely English tradition that was begun because of the plant’s vibrancy during the winter and its pretty white berries.
Holly, along with ivy and mistletoe, was a symbol of fertility and everlasting life. They were traditionally used to decorate doors, windows and fireplaces. However, holly was most prized because of its prickliness — pagans believed the pricks would ward off or snag and capture evil spirits before they could enter and harm a household. [IBS]
So have a holly jolly Christmas, er, solstice – it’s just about the same tradition, other than that Son of God thing.