The Longest Night - Winter Solstice

Stonehenge at daybreak on the solstice.
The Winter Solstice is probably the most celebrated annual event worldwide, both now and in the past. Our ancestors rejoiced in the return of the sun, seeing it as a rebirth of life as well as light. Many ancient cultures created incredible structures to align with the sun during solstices. One of the most famous examples of this is Stonehenge, but it’s just one of hundreds of megalithic sites across Europe designed to mark these important days in the astronomical calendar. Ancient inhabitants of the New World, such as the Incas, built similar structures.

Winter Solstice, usually called Yule, falls on December 21 in 2011, and it marks the shortest day and longest night of the year. For those of us who struggle with the annual darkness, it draws the line between one half of the year and the other. After this day, the days will lengthen once more and light will increase.

The holiday now known as Christmas has its origins in many long ago Yule celebrations.

The Yule Log

Yule logs and fireplaces were once
a LOT bigger
Medieval tradition tells of an enormous log – commonly ash or oak – placed in the fireplace on the solstice. It was decorated with evergreens and kindled with the carefully saved remains of last year’s Yule log. The wood would burn all night, then be allowed to smolder for the following 12 days. Pouring ale or wine on the log was customary. So was sprinkling flour or breadcrumbs on it, or even placing coins on the log. All were said to bring good fortune, and the blackened coins were later given as gifts.

Remnants of the Yule log were said to have protective properties and were kept in the house to guard against lightning and hail, and against various diseases. Ashes of the log were mixed with cattle and poultry fodder to ensure that the livestock thrived in the coming year.

Later, as large fireplaces fell out of fashion, small logs were decorated in a similar way and holes were bored into the wood to hold candles, which would be burned for 12 nights. The French were the first to create an edible Yule log, and Victorian confectioners made these Yule cakes famous.

The Yule Tree

Celtic customs are said to have called for the decorating of sacred oak trees. The Celts and many other peoples also held evergreens to be symbolic of immortality, of continuing life in the midst of death. In the coldest, darkest and dreariest of winters, evergreens held forth hope of returning spring. Throughout many cultures and over countless centuries, homes have been decorated with evergreen boughs and other winter greenery.

The practice of decorating trees dates back to before Roman times. The trees were not cut down and brought into the house, however, but left alive and decorated wherever they grew with trinkets, trophies, sacred plants such as holly and mistletoes, bits of metal and sometimes replicas of gods.

The Yuletide Wreath

Wreaths have symbolized the wheel of the year since ancient times, and the word wreath comes from the Old English writhen, meaning "to twist". In many European countries, evergreen wreaths were lit with candles during the darkest winter days, symbolizing hope that light would return. Candles were sometimes placed around a wheel, to ensure that the year would cycle around so that the days would lengthen and warmth return. Holly wreaths were said to ward off the evil spirits that abounded during the darkness of midwinter, and holly might be kept near the door all year long to invite good fortune.

The Yule Goat

Giant straw goats decorate
town squares while tiny ones
decorate Yule trees
The Yule Goat or Julbock was central to solstice traditions in Scandinavia and northern Europe. A human dressed in goatskins and wearing long horns acted out a skit in which he “died” and returned to life. This was symbolic of the sun’s resurrection at solstice. (The goat guise was chosen because the Norse thunder god Thor had two goats which drew his chariot across the sky. He would occasionally kill the goats and use them to feed guests, then would restore them to life with a blow of his magical hammer.)

Goats were originally slaughtered as offerings during Yule, but later, goats made of straw were created annually as both decorations and effigies. This webcam site shows the current giant straw goat in Gävle, Sweden. The reason for the webcam is that the straw goat doesn't usually last the season -- it's a tradition for it to be burnt to the ground in the middle of the night!

Other Winter Solstice traditions

Many people celebrate by staying awake throughout the night of the solstice so they can watch the sunrise the following day. Others wake early to observe the daybreak and dawn of a new cycle. Bonfires are usually lit to simulate the ascent of the sun and sometimes herbs such as sage are thrown into the blaze. Candles are allowed to burn throughout the day. Gifts are often exchanged as part of the midwinter celebrations, and stories told of ghosts and fairies.

Songs are sung, especially carols such as Deck the Halls which mention Yule specifically. Toasts are made and, in some places, groups dress up in costumes and go “wassailing”, which is very much like caroling. “Wassail” comes from an Anglo-Saxon toast for “Be Well” or “Be Healthy”. In modern times, the revelers go door to door, carrying “Wassail cups” that will hopefully be filled at each house.

Wassail was usually
hot spiced cider, alcohol optional.
 In ancient times, wassailing was done around the oldest tree in an apple orchard. Cider was poured on the roots and toast dipped in cider was hung on the branches to thank the tree dryads and ensure a good crop in the coming year. The carolers sang and drummed to drive away bad spirits, and the wassail cup was passed from person to person. Each took a drink and passed on the cup with a kiss and a blessing.

One of the most unique solstice traditions is the lighting of the White Horse on the hillside at Alton Barnes in England. The mammoth chalk figure is outlined by candles placed in glass jars on the day of the winter solstice. When night falls, only the glowing outline of the horse is visible. Here’s a video on YouTube of last year’s lighting ( ).

The Reason for the Season

Winter solstice is often called Yule, probably from an old Nordic word for wheel. With the coming of Yule, the wheel of the year has rolled around to its beginning once more. The word solstice comes from Latin for “stoppage”. The sun is at its lowest point in the sky and its elevation at noon appears to be the same for several days before and after solstice.

The Celts believed that the "wheel of the year" paused briefly on this day as the sun itself appears to stop. Accordingly, they wouldn’t turn a wheel of any kind on this day, not even a butter churn. A time of stillness was prized as an opportunity to reflect on the past year and look forward to the new one.

This concept of reflection is still at the very heart of all midwinter celebrations. It’s a time to meditate on the sorrows of the past year as well as the positive moments and achievements. It offers a chance to bond with family and friends, and to look forward with hope.

Dani Harper

Your turn – Do you celebrate the winter solstice or Yule? What are some of the other traditions you know of?  If you're interested in reading more about Winter Solstice traditions, try The Winter Solstice: The Sacred Traditions of Christmas for adults and The Shortest Day: Celebrating the Winter Solstice for the young at heart.

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