The Winter Solstice – where the day is the shortest and the night is the longest of the year.
Why celebrate such an occasion? Why was it a day of significance for our ancestors?
Our ancestors used astronomical events, such as the moon and sun, to guide their activities such as sowing seeds, growing crops, harvesting, monitoring winter reserves, and mating of the animals. Farming, eating, and surviving all depended on this awareness.
Naturally, their spiritual beliefs are tied to nature and the agriculture cycle which are reflected in their rituals and celebrations.
The winter solstice was an event that was seen as the reversal of the suns ebbing presence in the sky which contribute to their concepts of birth, rebirth, and the sun gods. The disappearing sun was of very much concern to them. The sun has been shining less and less at this time and it appears that the sun stands still and doesn’t move for three days in the sky. This would have been alarming for the first humans. A ritual would be needed to coax the sun back.
Indeed, this became a yearly ritual for the rebirth of the sun to warm the earth again.
This time was also used as a rebirth of our own inner self. It was a time for self reflection, rest, rejuvenating from the rigorous growing cycle, and creativity and stories that sparked the imagination.
To celebrate, our ancestors tied stories of the Gods / Goddess into these occasions of change and celebration. Many Christmas traditions and customs we see today came from the people who celebrated Yule / Winter Solstice / Midwinter. For example the Christmas Tree, wreath, and Yule log, Santa Clause and his reindeer, and the exchanging of presents came from Scandinavian and German culture. The mistletoe came from the ancient Celtic Druids.
The tree and wreath were from the evergreen tree which symbolized the green of spring and summer. Also, by bringing in evergreen which includes pine, helped to protect against illness (evil spirits). Pine interestingly helps boost immunity and protects respiratory health which is needed in the long winter being cooped up in a house.
Santa Clause came from several cultures around the world. In Scandinavia Odin traveled the midwinter sky on his eight legged horse, Sleipnir, dropping off presents. The Dutch had Sinterklaas.
Caroling came from wassailing door to door singing for the health of neighbors and driving out the evil spirits (illness) from the fields to ensure good crop growth for the coming new growing season.
Indeed, this dark time was a useful time not only to renew the earth but ourselves as well. The evergreens can help us today to think of the spring/summer time and give us hope through the long dark nights. Also, as we have learned, they can help protect us from illness. The winter stories of the customs can be a very joyous time. We can plan for the future, use our imagination, and be creative during this time welcoming the sun back.