If you’re a cup-half-full kind of a person, the winter solstice is the longest night of the year. For cup-half-empty folks, on the other hand, it’s the shortest day of the year. Either way, December 21st is the first day of winter in the northern hemisphere and has been celebrated since ancient times.
Considered an important turning point in the year when daytime starts increasing in length, the “return” of the sun has inspired numerous rituals across the world. Here are some examples of ways different cultures celebrate the birth of a new solar year.
The Norsemen of northern Europe saw the sun as a wheel that changed the seasons. The word yule is thought to have come from the word for this wheel, or houl. To celebrate the winter solstice, the Norsemen lit bonfires, told stories and drank sweet ale.
During this time of year, the ancient Druids would cut mistletoe from oak trees and give it as a blessing. Oaks were seen as sacred and the winter fruit of the mistletoe was a symbol of life in the dark winter months. It is also thought that the Druids were the ones who began the tradition of the yule log. The yule log was originally an entire tree that was carefully chosen and brought into the home with great ceremony. The largest end of the log would be placed into the hearth while the rest of the tree stuck out into the room. It would be lit from the remains of the previous year's log, which had been carefully stored away, and slowly fed into the fire for several days.
The Persian festival of Yalda, or Shab-e Yalda, is a celebration of the triumph of the Sun God, Mithra, over darkness. According to tradition, people gather together on the longest night of year to protect each other from evil, burn fires to light their way through the darkness, feast on nuts, pomegranates and other festive foods and read poetry. Many stay awake all night in order to welcome the morning sun and rejoice in the banishing of darkness and evil with the arrival of light and goodness.
SOYAL & SHALAKO
The Zuni, one of the Native American tribes in New Mexico, and the Hopi of northern Arizona, celebrate the winter solstice with elaborate ceremonies. The Zuni mark the occasion with a ceremonial dance called Shalako, while the Hopi celebration is called Soyal. Both have a sun priest who signals the setting of the sun on the solstice with a long, mournful call. With that signal, the dancing and festivities begin. In the case of Shalako, they dance for four days. For Shoyal an all-night ceremony ensues including kindling fires, dancing and sometimes gift-giving.
The ancient Romans held a festival to celebrate the rebirth of the year. Saturnalia ran for seven days starting from December 17th. It was a time when ordinary rules were turned upside down and the social order was inverted, so men dressed as women and slaves did not work and were briefly treated as equals. The festival also involved decorating houses with greenery, lighting candles, holding processions and giving presents.
In Japan, people light bonfires to encourage the sun’s return, and bonfires can be seen on Mount Fuji every winter solstice. In the Issan Shrine in Saitama City, they go so far as to make a path in the middle of a bonfire and visitors walk down the path barefoot with a wish to remove the impurities of the past year. More common though, is the practice of taking a bath with yuzu, a type of citrus fruit. It is said that if you take a yuzu bath on the winter solstice, you won’t catch a cold during winter.
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Whatever your winter holiday may be, it likely involves natural or artificial lights, feasts, and closing the year with loved ones – much like it has been celebrated for millenia. All of us at Pure Synergy wish you a new solar year filled with vibrant health of body, mind and spirit.