If you live in the northern hemisphere, winter is coming. It is getting colder outside, the deciduous trees are losing their leaves, plants are withering, birds are migrating, and animals are retreating underground to enter their dormant states. But most noticeable of all are the increasingly shorter days.
These changes are happening because, about 4.5 the winter. In short, the tilt of Earth’s axis created the billion years ago, during the formation of our solar seasons and the solstices. system, something happened that caused Earth’s axis to tilt approximately twenty-three and one-half degrees. This tilt positions the northern hemisphere in such a way as to be more directly warmed by the sun during the summer and less directly warmed during the winter. In short, the tilt of Earth’s axis created the seasons and the solstices.
As we approach the winter solstice—the darkest time of the year—most of us dread all the long, dark nights that await us. And this feeling is nothing new: The solsticial darkness has always had a profound— and even mythic—effect on the human psyche.
Imagine how frightening it must have been to the first people who noticed that the world seemed to be darkening and dying. And now imagine the sense of hope and renewal that the return of light brought them. No wonder this turning point in time became the inspiration for so many sacred stories and ceremonies that celebrate the triumph of light and life over darkness and death.
Even today, when science can explain the seasonal shifts as astrophysical phenomena, the solsticial darkness still has a strong influence on our personal and collective psyches. Intellectually, we know that winter will transition into spring, and yet our senses perceive a world that really does appear to be dying. Light and life are diminishing right before our eyes. Rationally, we know that the world is not coming to an end. But perhaps, on a deeper, more primordial level, as the nights get darker and darker, we still feel some of the apprehension experienced by our ancestors during this mysterious time of year.
Winter’s darkness also creates a gestational space, which gives thoughts and feelings room to grow. Just like the occasional “dark night of the soul” in which we cannot sleep because something worries us, the introspective nights of winter are a kind of collective dark night of the world psyche. The ever-increasing darkness and the space it gives us to contemplate our lives often provokes us to think about the year that is passing. This nostalgic awareness of the passage of time needs to be balanced with feelings of hope and renewal. This is why we celebrate the holidays. We engage in symbolic gestures, such as lighting candles, hanging strings of lights, bringing evergreens into our homes, gathering around fires, and exchanging gifts because these rituals are intended to engender hope and create joyful anticipation.
For decades now, many of us in the Western world have been disillusioned with the commercialization of the winter holidays, especially Christmas. As we rush through the preparations and festivities, we often forget that this is a sacred and mythic time—a deeply storied season that has been honored and celebrated since prehistory. Ironically, we tend to blame the holidays—which were created to help us connect with the sacred—for our feelings of alienation. However, it is not the celebrations that we should blame for our dispirited state, but our forgetfulness. Feasts, fires, gatherings, gift giving—these should help us through the darkness, not plunge us deeper into it. If it feels like our winter holidays have eroded into near-meaningless obligations, then it is time for us, both personally and collectively, to try to remember the true meaning of the winter solstice.
Back when humankind first experienced the darkening days of winter, people felt fear and doubt. But then, as light and life slowly started to return, they learned to trust that they would survive the darkness, and they developed faith—in themselves, and in the Sacred Presence to which they attributed their survival. So the winter solstice—created by a random astronomical act that caused a tilt in Earth’s axis—provides us with an annual ritual in which we have to face our doubts and rediscover our faith. By offering our psyches the opportunity to reenact this yearly archetypal cycle of death/doubt and rebirth/faith, the solstice tends to our souls. In this mysterious way, the tilt of our tiny blue-green planet has taught us to trust that at the very darkest moment, on the longest night, the light will start to return. Trust, faith, light: This is the meaning—and magic—of the winter solstice. Happy holidays.
Celebrating the Solstice With Fire and Light
As the saying goes, it is better to light a candle than curse the darkness, and the winter solstice is the perfect time to take this advice to heart. During the long nights of winter, take some time to bring back the light. Here are a few suggestions—inspired by ancient traditions—for ways to celebrate the solstice with fire and light.
Rekindle the Sun With a Sacred Fire
When our lives depended on fire, tending the hearth was a matter of survival. This was especially true during the long nights surrounding the winter solstice. At this time, fire provided not only heat and light, but also served as a symbolic gesture for rekindling the solsticial sun. Lighting a sacred fire with family and friends is a simple and meaningful way of honoring the solstice. Symbolically, a solstice fire can represent not only the return of solar and spiritual light, but also the primal forces of transformation and regeneration.
To create sacred space around the fire, ask friends or family to encircle the hearth or fire pit. Prior to lighting the fire, consider setting a group intention that the fire will bring more light to the world and to the hearts of everyone participating in the ceremony. Suggest that the oldest or youngest participant light the fire and that everyone release their solstices wishes as the flames ignite.
Burn a Yule Log
The ceremonial burning of a special log during the winter solstice is an ancient and widespread tradition originating in Northern Europe. One version of the Yule log ceremony involved decorating the Yule log before burning. Plan a Yule Log Party with family and friends. Provide each participant (or family or couple) with a small symbolic log. These should be lengths of a seasoned hardwood tree branch, one or two inches in diameter. Birch, oak, cherry, and maple are good choices. According to tradition, the “logs” should be gathered from your property or a neighbor’s property, but not purchased, if possible.
Before your Yuletide gathering, prepare the fireplace, woodstove, or fire pit with an appropriate bed of kindling to get the fire started, and gather tools and materials for decorating the logs. Once your guests have arrived, begin by telling them that in ancient times, Yule logs symbolized health, fertility, productivity, and protection against bad luck. Explain that decorating the logs prior to burning them enhances the likelihood that the log will bestow these good things upon our lives.
To adorn the logs, use burnable paper ribbons, evergreens (such as a few holly leaves and tiny branches of spruce or pine), sprigs of herbs, and dried flowers. You might also want to invite participants to write their wishes for the coming year on small pieces of paper. These can then be folded and tied to the log with paper ribbon or natural raffia. When you are finished decorating, you might want to sprinkle a tiny bit of wine on the logs, as they did in ancient times.
Just before lighting the fire, ask everyone to gather around the hearth or fire pit and have a moment of silence in which people can hold a wish or prayer in their hearts. Then ask the oldest person present to light the fire. Once you have a good ceremonial fire going, place the log on the fire and release your wishes. If possible, don’t burn the entire log. Save a bit of its charcoal as good luck, and as “kindling” for next year’s Yule log. The continuity of one year’s log becoming kindling for the next symbolizes the great cycle of life.
Light a Solstice Candle
Candles are one of the most ancient ways of providing light, so they have come to be the quintessential symbol of light, representing spiritual illumination and the aspiring human soul. Lighting candles can reconnect you with the ancient and universal human yearning to create a light in the darkness. Candle lighting is therefore one of the oldest and most important rituals. It is also one of the simplest ways to ritualize an occasion and invite the sacred into the moment.
As a personal ritual to honor the solstice, designate a candle as your “solstice” candle and then assign to it a prayer or wish for bringing more light into the world. Alternatively, as part of a larger solstice gathering, ask each guest to bring a small glass-enclosed votive candle. At an appropriate moment during your gathering, invite your guests outside with their candles. Stand in a circle and light your candles one at a time. As host or hostess, you might begin by asking people to hold a wish or prayer for light in their hearts. Then light two candles: your votive and a taper candle. Hold onto your votive, and pass the taper candle to the person on your right so that they can light their candle. Once the lighting candle has been passed around, and all the votives are lit, extinguish the lighting candle. Then, place the glass votives on the ground in front of you (provided you are in an appropriate and safe environment for doing this). Use the sacred space created by your solsticial circle of light in the darkness to warmly wish each other peace and joy in the coming new year. (Don’t forget to extinguish all the candle flames when you are finished with your ceremony!