Tonight is the shortest, darkest night of the year. No one really knows how long ago that people recognized this fact and marked it as the turning point – the return of the sun. One book, “Four Thousand Years of Christmas,” claims that the Mesopotamians were first to celebrate a festival of renewal to help the god Marduk tame the monsters of chaos for another year.
Many cultures feared that the failing light would never return unless humans intervened with anxious vigil or a celebration.
Scholars haven't found proof that the Neolithic people had the skill to pinpoint a celestial event like solstice. Earliest markers of time that we've found from these ancient peoples are notches carved into bone that appear to count the cycles of the moon. But perhaps they watched the movement of the sun as well as the moon, and perhaps they celebrated it -- with fertility rites, with fire festivals, with offerings and prayers to their gods and goddesses.
Many cultures built their greatest architectures -- tombs, temples, cairns and sacred observatories -- so that they aligned with the solstices and equinoxes. Many of us know that Stonehenge is a perfect marker of both solstices.
But not so many people are familiar with Newgrange, a beautiful megalithic site in Ireland. This huge circular stone structure is estimated to be 5,000 years old, older by centuries than Stonehenge, older than the Egyptian pyramids! It was built to receive a shaft of sunlight deep into its central chamber at dawn on winter solstice.
Christmas was transplanted onto winter solstice some 1,600 years ago, centuries before the English language emerged from its Germanic roots. “The rebirth of the sun.” was changed into “The birth of the Son” at this time.
Native Americans had winter solstice rites. These sun images are from rock paintings of the Chumash, who occupied coastal California for thousands of years before the Europeans arrived. Solstices were tremendously important to them, and the winter solstice celebration lasted several days.
The word solstice is derived from sol, meaning sun, and sistere, to make stand still. Winter Solstice is also known as Midwinter, the marking of the shortest day and longest night of the year in the Northern Hemisphere.
Winter Solstice marks the time of the year when the light returns as the sun shifts and starts to move northward again. In Europe, the tradition of the yule log is celebrated on Winter Solstice. A special log is brought in and placed on the hearth where it glows for the twelve nights of the holiday season. After that, it is kept in the house all year to protect the home and its inhabitants from illness and any adverse condition. The yule log is the counterpart of the midsummer bonfires, which are held outdoors on Summer Solstice to celebrate the shortest night of the year. It is also customary to place mistletoe around the fire, which is the plant that grew on the oak tree, sacred to the Druids, the priests of the old Celts. Among other uses, mistletoe is thought to help women conceive. The Christmas tree also dates from old European or pagan rituals. It was the time to celebrate the renewal of the earth, and greens were used as the symbol. Branches of pine, cedar, and juniper were commonly used to bring wonderful fragrance into the home. Red candles were used to symbolize the fire and heat of the returning sun as the days begin to lengthen.
It does not matter if you are of the old religion or the new (Pagan or Christianity) …. tonight is a night to acknowledge as the beginning of the light coming back into the world. Light a bonfire, light a candle, have a fire in your fireplace. Have some kind of light or fire to represent this light.
So, Blessed Solstice, Blessed Yule or Blessed Christmas, whatever your faith may be.