We have science to answer our questions about seasonal changes in nature, but there was a time when those answers didn’t exist. A time when fears ran rampant and people huddled together sharing stories and trying to explain why the darkness loomed and the nights grew longer. In their attempts to make sense of their surroundings, superstitions grew into beliefs, and cultures across the world celebrated the winter solstice in their own unique ways.
Winter Solstice comes from the Latin word “solstitium” meaning a pause as the sun reaches its most extreme point. In the case of the winter solstice, there was a reason for celebration as the days slowly became longer and there were many stories told of mythical monsters used to explain, entertain and terrify.
The Finnish people believed that the witch goddess of the North, named Louhi, kidnapped the sun and the moon and held them captive inside a mountain causing the darkness of winter. The Greeks believed in angry, hairy, gnome-like creatures who lived underground and tried to cut down the tree of life. The Kallikantzaros came out during the solstice during the twelve days of Christmas when the sun was thought to have slowed its movement after the solstice, to cause mayhem in the villages.
It was believed that if you left a colander outside your door, the creatures would spend all night counting the holes since they believed the number three to be holy and could only count to two again and again. This would keep them busy until sunrise when they would disappear back to the underworld without having a chance to make mischief.
Festivals bloomed all over the globe in celebration of this turning towards longer days. Saturnalia, celebrated by the Romans, was a rowdy week of gambling, drinking, feasting and gift giving to honor Saturn, the god of agriculture. From December 17-24th, even slaves were allowed to be part of the festivities and instead of working, many of the masters would choose to serve them.
The Feast of Juul is celebrated in Scandinavia during the winter solstice and fires are traditionally lit to symbolize heat, light and to honor the returning warmth of the sun. A Yule or Juul log was traditionally brought into the home and burned in honor of the god, Thor.
A piece would be kept as a token of good luck and to kindle the next year’s log but the remainder was burned completely to ash and sprinkled on the fields as fertilizer. The French believed that keeping some of those ashes under the bed would protect a house from lightning and foul weather throughout the year.
St. Lucia’s Day is a festival of lights celebrated in Scandinavia in honor of one of the earliest Christian martyrs. As a symbol of light, her feast day was a perfect companion to solstice traditions such as lighting fires to scare away evil spirits during the longest night of the year. On St Lucia’s Day, girls wear white dresses with red sashes and wreaths of candles on their heads just as the young martyr did to light her way as she carried forbidden food in her arms to the hungry and persecuted prisoners.
Shab-e Yalda, which means “night of birth,” is an Iranian celebration with Persian origins to pay homage to Mithra, the sun god. People gather together on the longest night of the year to protect each other from evil and burn torches to light their way through the darkness as they bring food and help people in need. They feast on pomegranates and nuts, make wishes and read poetry into the wee hours of the night until the sun rises. At that time, they believe that evil has been banished and goodness has arrived.
Toji is celebrated in Japan during the winter solstice and is the practice of starting the new year with health and good luck. Farmers welcome the return of sun to their crops and people light bonfires on Mount Fuji to encourage the sun to shine. The people take baths scented with a citrus fruit called yuzu believed to ward off colds and harbor good health. The Japanese also eat kabocha, known to us as Japanese pumpkin, which is believed to bring good luck.
Although winter is a time of dormancy and darkness, the Winter Solstice is an opportunity for us to celebrate the return of longer days. We are reminded of our humility and dependence on the sun to survive and people all over the earth are united by this inherent need. The celebration of fire, health and good luck are universal and amid the starkness of the longest night of the year, we all find comfort and hope knowing that spring is around the corner.
And so the Shortest Day came and the year diedThe Shortest Day, Susan Cooper
And everywhere down the centuries of the snow-white world
Came people singing, dancing,
To drive the dark away.
They lighted candles in the winter trees;
They hung their homes with evergreen;
They burned beseeching fires all night long
To keep the year alive.
And when the new year’s sunshine blazed awake
They shouted, reveling.
Through all the frosty ages you can hear them
Echoing behind us – listen!
All the long echoes, sing the same delight,
This Shortest Day,
As promise wakens in the sleeping land:
They carol, feast, give thanks,
And dearly love their friends,
And hope for peace.
And now so do we, here, now,
This year and every year.