Today was the winter solstice. The shortest day of the year, followed by the longest night. That is the astronomical meaning. The symbolic one is at the root of the greatest story ever told, a story with many languages and many faces.
To get all sciency again for a second, the actual solstice lasts only a second. It’s precise time can be measured by really smart people with big telescopes and fancy calculators, but can’t be seen with the naked eye. It generally falls, in the northern hemisphere, on either December 21st or 22nd.
In short, the sun rose to it’s lowest point today than it has all year, and the farther north you live, the shorter was your day. Unless, of course, you live in the Southern hemisphere, in which case, you’re having a long summer day.
The most significant fact to know about the solstice is that it represents the end of the cycle of nights getting longer and marks the beginning of a new cycle of lengthening days. The ascension of daylight. That is why, in more traditions than you can shake a ritually-carved stick at, the solstice represents rebirth. The return of the wheel, the renewal of the light, the birth of the sun.
Where to begin? In the beginning, of course, which is not only the answer but also the question, and a heck of a good pun. It seems like you always hear that Christmas is just a Christian adaptation of pagan traditions, which is true, in essence, though it’s important to remember that the actual use of the term pagan simply defines anything that is not Christian, or at least derived from a Judeo-Christian ideology. The mostly-Celtic tradition of Yule, a word that itself means wheel, has roots in both Anglo-Saxon and Norse traditions, as does the Scottish celebration of Hogmanay; the Inca celebrated Inti Raymi (Festival of the Sun), while the Hopi and Zuni tribes of the American southwest marked the solstice with Soyal, a ritual which was believed to rouse the Sun from it’s winter slumber; the Iroquois Midwinter Festival, also called the Greatly Prized Ceremony, doesn’t necessarily happen on the date of the solstice, but the theme of the renewal of light is the same. They go to bed early on the occasion of the longest night to partake in nocturnal journeys, and celebrate their literal and spiritual awakening with a ceremony of Dream Sharing; Saturnalia, the ancient Roman tradition of reversing the normal order of things, lasted for seven days, and is probably the direct antecedent of Christmas; in the northwestern corner of Pakistan, the Kalasha tribe celebrates a festival called Chaomos, which involves ritual baths, singing, feasting and revelry as part of a purification process.
In ancient Egypt, Horus was born. In Persia, the celebration of Yalda marks the triumph of light over darkness, and notes the birth of Mithra, the Light of the World. The Sami and indigenous tribes of northern Scandinavia, above the Arctic Circle, where the sun in the winter does not even rise, celebrate the return, or the rebirth, of the goddess Beiwe.
The birth of the sun.
There are far better and far more detailed enumerations and elucidations of these various traditions available online. You can easily learn more about them, as I did, by praying “meaning of winter solstice” into the luminous LCD altar at the Oracle of G. I find them fascinating, if for nothing else than the naked universality of our human rituals and creation myths, the illustration of Joseph Campbell’s many heroes with their thousands of faces.
But really, the truth is that all of these things are trivial to the fact that it doesn’t require historical tradition or archaic ritual to be reminded, innately, that the dawn of a new light is coming. Our organism is tied to the greater cycle, the celestial wheel, and as our Parent arrives at the end of it’s hyper-spun journey around the Sun, before immediately embarking on the next trip, so too does our collective unconscious. In the metaphors of our ancients, we all accede to the internal birth of our own Sun King at this time of year.
Personally, I really like the Iroquois idea of descending into our dreams, each and all, for just one night, and awakening to share stories in order to find meaning for the individual, the community, the universe. Finding a way to a shared vision. Unfortunately, we should all have gone to sleep by now.