Winter Solstice, the shortest day, is nearly upon us and these few hours of daylight feel so precious. Whenever the skies clear and the sun shines I feel a pressing urgency to get outside (probably like everyone else), starved of the long luxurious summer days of endless light.
But the indoor life of deep winter nesting has overtaken me and it seems to take an age to get going. I step out of my well lit, centrally heated home, all wrapped up and wonder how on earth our ancestors managed the bitter cold of deep winter, how they knew so well to survive in the snowy forests and on high ground.
Winter on the moors
The moors are known for their deep dykes and stone circles, evidence of the neolithic and stone age peoples who lived there. It seems ironic that the very comfort that sedates us now is in part responsible for a world spinning out of balance. Yet for those people winter was unbelievably hard, so often the grim reaper, and it isn’t hard to imagine their relief and hope as the shortest day passed, knowing life giving light would return again.
Rose Rylands is a Storyteller and walking guide based where she grew up on the East Coast at Whitby. Her mission is to connect people to the earth as a place of magic, mystery and meaning, to arrest ongoing harm to both ourselves and the natural world.
“My passion is to connect people with the earth as a place of mystery, meaning and magic through story. I suppose I am a sort of cultural custodian of my own small space and beloved bit of earth.”
Rose writes a monthly blog for us on the Wheel of the Year theme. Read her other blogs and watch her video blogs here.
Reverence and Thanksgiving at the heart
But reverance, awe and thanksgiving were at the heart of their culture. They built sites of worship, geometrically aligned with the solar cycle. Sites marking and ritualising these pivotal moments in the great turning of the wheel. Stonehenge at Winter Solstice, one of the most famous. Light pours through a narrow gap into the circle of stones exactly on sunset.
We are held in a mystery, on a garden spinning in space. Now, when so little is predictable anymore, I take heart from the eternal cycles of nature and the knowing that snowdrops are just around the corner.
Arrival of Winter Solstice
But for us, winter solstice on 21st December arrives just before Christmas and as we get ready to celebrate the birth of Christ, symbol of hope and goodness, our prayers, hymns and celebrations also blend with ancient Pagan traditions. The mystical is ever present.
Homes and streets are decked with colourful lights, Christmas trees are twinkling everywhere, feasts and family gatherings planned. I love this massive mix of old and new religion and ritual.
Brightening the Darkness
Candles and fires have been lit since time immemorial to brighten the deep winter darkness, to ward off evil spirits and to attract friendly entities.
Our ancestors would bring in a tree to keep the wood spirits warm, hanging food and treats for them on the branches, a five pointed star representing the five elements placed on top of the tree. Dried fruits and nuts from the autumn harvest provided nourishment and plenty of energy to keep them going in the dark months, hence our Christmas pudding, cake and bowls of nuts!
Yuletide and the Yule Log
The season of Yuletide lasts from the 21st of December to 1st January – the 12 days of Christmas. The Yule log was in fact a whole tree and the Celts believed that by keeping the Yule log burning for these 12 days it would encourage the sun to move, making the days longer. Yuletide comes from Yol – the old Norse name for God Odin – and is connected with festivities around fires, feasting and the wild hunt. Our Christmas rituals still include the Yule log, singing, and feasting on roast meat.
But mythologically, this time of year can be found in so many stories of the descent and the return. Whether it is the return of the hero from the underworld in the classic eastern european tale of Baba Yaga, or the hero’s journey through Hades to cross the River Styx, to face and conquer terrible dangers before returning to the light, always with otherworldly assistance.
Whether it be ancient tales of earth Goddesses of fertility and rebirth, Demeter and Persephone. Alternatively, the classic Sumerian story of the descent of Innana, great Goddess of the heavens, into the underworld. All mirror the descent into darkness and the return to the light, transformed in some way. Death is present. What is gained also incurs loss. But magic and divine enchantment are always at play and the forces of light ultimately triumph.
These ancient myths still hold the map we need to navigate life as it is now. This is especially as we still find ourselves down in the underworld of winter, covid, and uncertainty.
Winter Solstice and Reflection
Winter invites us to look into the abyss. We face our demons, claim our strengths, look into our shadow and then turn to our light. It is a time of reflection, clearing, transformation.
I just feel that at this time of year, if we can tear ourselves away long enough from our devices to take time to ponder, to rest, to look back on our journey through the past year – and boy what a year! – we may all emerge blinking into the light again perhaps chastened by events, but with renewed hope and energy. For this I know – our journey and that of this extraordinary living planet are one and the same. The Earth and all other beings again need our prayers, our love and acts of kindness. We are here for such a short time – let’s make it count. I wish you one and all a Happy Solstice, a heartfelt return to the Light, and a storied life.