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December 21 winter solstice celebration

by Pat Hacker | December 12, 1998

Take a few moments from your busy schedule, connect with women of all cultures and religions, and experience a winter solstice ritual. You will find new meaning and new energy.

The winter solstice on December 21 is often called the beginning of winter. It is, in fact, the beginning of the end of winter. The winter solstice occurs at the moment of the year when the day is shortest, the night is longest and the strength of the darkness is at its peak. At this precise time of the year, the new sun is born and the light of the earth begins its return.

The ancient ones lived within the natural cycles and rhythms of the earth and they knew the exact time when the days would begin to grow longer and the sun stronger. Torches, fires, and later candles were lit and people celebrated; they gave gifts to each other and recognized the importance of the sun to life on earth. As in all things, the mother goddess had given birth to the life-sustaining sun. All things proceed from the goddess and all things return to the goddess.

Women who honour the cycles and rhythms of mother earth continue to celebrate the winter solstice and the yule season. We decorate our homes with garlands, wreaths, pine cones, boughs and trees in recognition of the sacredness of evergreens. Holly and ivy are ancient symbols of the Yule season representing rebirth and the promise of a new cycle of life, while nuts and fruits symbolize fertility and abundance.

Mistletoe is a difficult evergreen to find and gather; it grows in the highest branches of tall trees and was sacred to the winter celebrations of the ancient druids. It is associated with fertility, which may be why we hang bunches of mistletoe in a doorway knowing that anyone standing under the mistletoe may receive a kiss.

We often choose this time of year to renew our hopes and revision and dreams. We may resolve to make changes, accomplish new things and look ahead to what the next seasons will bring.

It is an old and lasting custom to burn a bayberry candle at the Yule season saying as you light the candle, “A bayberry candle burned to the socket brings luck to the house and gold to the pocket.”

Most of the major religions of the world celebrate some form of recognition of the solstice through holidays such as Chanukah and Christmas. Looking at the religious tradition we may have come from, Christianity as an example, it is easy to see where many of our customs and beliefs originated. A miraculous birth of a son by a virgin mother repeats the cycle of the earth and the sun.

a winter solstice ritual – outdoors

A ritual for the winter solstice in more northern climates may be better done indoors. However, if the night is clear and the snow not too deep, it is a wonderful experience to celebrate the solstice out of doors, returning indoors after the ritual to feast and party. The Sabbats, the eight major pagan celebrations of the year, are usually celebrated on the eve of the holiday; the evening of December 20 is the time to recognize the winter solstice.

If you plan to have an outdoor circle, dress warmly and have someone prepare the area and lay a fire in advance. You will want the fire in the centre of the circle to represent the burning of the Yule log and the return of the sun; it will also help you keep warm. Don’t light the fire until the appropriate time in the ritual. Light tea lights [in clear cups for wind protection] in advance to mark the circle so that you can find it in the dark. You will be amazed that you don’t feel cold when in the circle.

When the group has assembled in a circle, a priestess, convenor or designated member may cast the circle by walking its circumference, arms outstretched, incising a circle around the group. She may then say, “By my will the circle is cast. Blessed be.” Each woman in the circle may, in turn, repeat, “By my will the circle is cast. Blessed be.”

Using a large bird feather, or smoke from a cedar or sage wand passed around the circle, let each woman purify herself, removing the last of the daily world, to free her thoughts to be present with the Goddess between the worlds.

Either one woman or four may be designated to call in the four directions, starting with the north, the direction of winter and of earth, followed by east, south and west.

Another person may circle the fire pit, lighting it at the points of the four directions, beginning with north, and the rest may begin a chant:

Goddess Mother
Ever Changing
Flowing Mother
All Renewing
          

Where’s the Sun? Now the Sun Bring the Sun Infant Sun

Repeat this chant while the fire grows. Following directly from the chant, begin to raise a cone of power by making wordless, atonal sounds that begin at a low register and slowly move higher and louder. Feel the rising tide of energy between the members of the circle, the fire at the centre, and the waves of sound rising.

Carry the sound as constantly and for as long as the group needs, ending with shrieks and screams of delight and ecstasy. For behold, the sun is returning and we have sent the power of our energy skyward to meet the returning light, to usher it in, to midwife its birth.

Close the circle by releasing the directions. Each woman in the circle may say in turn, “By my will the circle is open. Blessed be.”

Extinguish your fire by covering it with water, earth or snow. Proceed to a warm place for feasting and celebrating.

indoor ritual

Prepare the indoor area where the ritual is to be held by carefully cleaning it, and bringing in as much greenery as you can manage. The greens will add a cool, moist feeling to the space, as well as the wonderful fragrance of the woods. Remember to include holly, ivy and mistletoe if you can find some.

The fire may be represented by a wood-burning fireplace or stove, or by a cauldron with a “cold fire” (made of rubbing alcohol and epsom salts) or by placing around the altar candles of white, red, and green to be lit during the ritual to welcome the sun. Light one larger black candle to represent the darkness at the height of its power.

Raising a cone of power does not work well in small spaces. However, if the walls will remain standing, give it a try. As an alternative to the cone of power, a myth or story of the season may be read by one or several members of the group, or the group may share yule season memories or feelings about the holiday from a pagan perspective, comparing it with other familiar religious traditions of more recent times. It is pleasant to recognize and incorporate traditions that have come from a common source.

After releasing the directions and closing the circle, turn to feasting and partying.

A word about food, feasting and clothing. Neither food nor alcohol are consumed prior to a ritual; but following the ritual, go for it. White is the traditional colour of the season, but dress in a way or in a color that makes you feel connected to the ritual and to the season.

At the yule season, when the winter is dark and, in northern climates, the weather is cold, it is important to celebrate with the foods our ancestors had most difficulty obtaining and most valued at special times such as the winter solstice. Sweets, fat, salt and fruits were greatly treasured. Hence, rich foods like mincemeat tarts, salted and unsalted nuts, cookies, butter, rich fruit cakes, hot cider (both sweet and hard), foods that in some manner have been preserved, are enjoyed and are traditionally associated with the season.

The yule season spans a time roughly from December 18 to January 6, with the winter solstice usually occurring on December 21. Enjoy the season fully. Make ritual as often and as spontaneously as you like.

Blessed be.

more to consider

The holidays, or holy days in many cultures and religions, are based on the lunar calendar. They may look different to people of different backgrounds, but they celebrate similar things. Here is a new year's resolution to consider. Check your local library for a multicultural calendar, find out which communities will be celebrating special days and attend part of the celebration.

resources for this story

calendars

  • For We'Moon 98, Gaia Rhythms for Women, which contains an astrological moon calendar, appointment book and daily guide to natural rhythm for women, Wise Womyn Ways

films

National Film Board of Canada films directed by Donna Reed:

  • Goddess Remembered (0189 027), also Sur les traces de la déesse (0289 027)
  • The Burning Times (0190 008), also Le Temps des bûchers (0290 008)
  • Full Circle (9192 126)

books

  • Drawing Down the Moon, by MARGOT ADLER, Beacon Press, ISBN: 0807032530 | 1986
  • A Woman’s Book Of Rituals and Celebrations, by BARBARA ARDINGER, New World Library, second edition, ISBN: 1880032570 | 1995
  • The Holy Book of Women’s Mysteries, by ZSUZSANNA BUDAPEST, Winghbow Press, ISBN: 0914728679 | 1989
  • Rites of Passage: The Pagan Wheel of Life, by PAULINE CAMPANELLI, Llewellyn Publications, ISBN: 0875421199 | 1994
  • Wheel of the Year: Living the Magical Life, by PAULINE CAMPANELLI, Llewellyn Publications, ISBN: 0875420915 | 1989
  • Ancient Ways: Reclaiming Pagan Traditions, by PAULINE CAMPANELLI, Llewellyn Publications, ISBN: 0875420907 | 1991
  • Wicca: A Guide For The Solitary Practitioner, by SCOTT CUNNINGHAM, Llewellyn Publications, ISBN: 0875421180 | 1988
  • The Great Cosmic Mother, by BARBARA MOR and MONICA SJOO, Harper Sanfrancisco, second edition, ISBN: 0062507915 | 1991
  • Arladne’s Thread: A Workbook of Goddess Magic, by SHEKHINAH MOUNTAINWATER, The Crossing Press, ISBN: 0895944758 | 1991
  • Women-Church, by ROSEMARY RADFORD RUETHER, Harper and Row, ISBN: 0060668350 | 1990
  • Encyclopedia of White Magic, by PADDY SLADE, Hamlyn Press, ISBN: 0792454286 | 1990
  • The Spiral Dance, by STARHAWK, Harper Sanfrancisco, ISBN: 0060675357 | 1991
  • The Women’s Spirituality Book, by DIANE STEIN, Llewellyn Publications, ISBN: 0875427618 | 1986
  • Jambalaya: The Natural Women’s Book of Personal Charms and Practical Rituals, by LULSAH TELSH, Harper Collins, ISBN: 0062508598 | 1988
  • Women’s Rituals, by BARBARA WALKER, Harper Sanfrancisco, ISBN: 006250939X | 1990
  • The Women’s Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects, by BARBARA WALKER, Harper Sanfrancisco, ISBN: 0062509925 | 1988

This feature was first published on section15.ca's predecessor site CoolWomen.

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