Tonight is the eve of the shortest day. Tomorrow, as the sun traces its eternal arc across the southern sky in the Northern Hemisphere, it will briefly appear to hesitate upon the apex of its trajectory. ‘Standing sun’ is the literal translation of the word solstice and it happens when the global axis is at its annual furthest point from the sun. After the solstice, the Earth swings back into the sunshine of longer days. The winter solstice marks the rebirth of the sun.
Long before the birth of Christ, before the world was bathed in twenty-four hour a day electric light, the standing sun, signaling the longer days and shorter nights to come was cause for celebration. The joy for the return of the sun did not go unnoticed by any cultures in the ancient world. Across the globe, the rebirth of the sun was celebrated universally by all the people of the Earth.
In Japan, Amaterasu marks the day the sun goddess emerges from her darkened cave to once again bathe the world in light. Ancient and modern Persians celebrate Shab-e Chelleh this evening on the eve of the solstice, commemorating the birth of the sun, Mithra. The Hopi and Zuni American Indian festival of Soyal welcomes the reawakening sun from its winter’s sleep. And the Ancient Druids, Celts, Scandinavians and other Northern Europeans initiated the annual ritual of Yule (Jul, Geul, Joul, and other permutations), commencing thousands of years ago and continuing to this day under the guise of the birth of another son.
The dawn of a new solar year brings new possibilities, a time to let go and a time to look forward, releasing the past to the past. This year, 2010 hosts a particularly potent winter solstice. Just after midnight tonight (Eastern Standard Time), Earth will begin to block the light of the sun on the face of the full moon. By 3:00 am the moon will be fully eclipsed. With the earthly darkening of the moon, the Ursids meteor shower will also be visible in the vicinity of the constellation of Ursa Minor, the Little Bear. This rare simultaneous occurrence of celestial events has not transpired for almost 400 years, making the observance of the winter solstice 2010 a once in many lifetimes event.
400 years ago, at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, the first merchant explorers were making their way to the New World, ushering in an era of unprecedented human and earthly exploitation. The world we inherit today is a legacy of that time and one that can be vastly improved upon. Let us take this time of rebirth to start again with reverence for our planet and her abundant mysteries.
Historically, the main modes of veneration for this most holy of nights are feasting, building fires and gift giving. As most animals were slaughtered at this time of the year to negate the need to feed them over the long winter ahead, a roasted beast of some persuasion usually formed the centerpiece of the occasion. Today many grass-fed beef farmers also observe this practice.
Along with the feast, a Yule log is ceremonially burned for several days, ideally into the New Year, symbolizing the joining of old and new and death and rebirth. Usually a large knot of oak is selected for this purpose, as the venerable oak is believed to pass on wisdom, insight and strength.
The giving of gifts imparts value in one’s community. In today’s world of rabid individualism, it is often less than apparent that we are all entirely dependant upon one another. We pride ourselves that we are “financially independent,” but who among us is really so? Every good consumed within the course of our daily lives is most often manufactured, grown or prepared by the labor of others, and we are all dependent upon the air, fruit, minerals and waters of Earth for every aspect of our livelihoods. Winter Solstice is a time to remind ourselves of these self-evident truths.
As the northern hemisphere passes from shadow to light, so let it be that our global civilization, long-cloaked in darkness shall be illuminated with the birth of the new sun. May we return to respect for a healthy, bountiful Earth that bestows blessings of peace to all, blessings of prosperity to all and joy, love and laughter for the next 400 years (at least).