The Winter Solstice: Honoring The Return Of The Sun

In this post we'll go over some of the early solstice celebrations and then outline some rituals you can practice on your own.

What is the Winter Solstice... the Astronomy

TimeAndDate gives us the astronomy behind the solstice

The December solstice occurs when the sun reaches its most southerly declination of -23.5 degrees. In other words, it is when the North Pole is tilted 23.5 degrees away from the sun. Depending on the Gregorian calendar, the December solstice occurs annually on a day between December 20 and December 23. On this date, all places above a latitude of 66.5 degrees north are now in darkness, while locations below a latitude of 66.5 degrees south receive 24 hours of daylight.

The sun is directly overhead on the Tropic of Capricorn in the southern hemisphere during the December solstice. It also marks the longest day of the year in terms of daylight hours for those living south of the Tropic of Capricorn. Those living or travelling south from the Antarctic Circle towards the South Pole will see the midnight sun during this time of the year.

On the contrary, for an observer in the northern hemisphere, the December solstice marks the day of the year with the least hours of daylight for those living north of the Tropic of Cancer. Those living or traveling north of the Arctic Circle towards the North Pole will not be able to see the sun during this time of the year.

Some Of The Early Winter Solstice Celebrations

Many cultures have Winter Solstice celebrations dating back thousans of years. Here's a few of the larger ones:

The Roman Festival of Saturnalia was closely tied to the solstice and had some interesting rituals. Many scholars find this to be one of the earliest celebrations of the solstice, and later when the leaders of Christianity were looking to convert other various religious groups, they adopted this time of year to bring these traditional celebrations to the Christian tradition: 

The ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia ran from December 17th-23rd. Saturnalia was particularly interesting culturally. During the last day of this festival, it was traditional for masters to change places with their household slaves. How this custom was observed varied widely, depending completely on the house. The Saturnalia was a large and important public festival in Rome. It involved the conventional sacrifices, a couch (lectisternium) set out in front of the temple of Saturn and the untying of the ropes that bound the statue of Saturn during the rest of the year. Besides the public rites there were a series of holidays and customs celebrated privately. The celebrations included a school holiday, the making and giving of small presents (saturnalia et sigillaricia) and a special market (sigillaria). Gambling was allowed for all, even slaves; however, although it was officially condoned only during this period, one should not assume that it was rare or much remarked upon during the rest of the year. It was a time to eat, drink, and be merry. The toga was not worn, but rather the synthesis, i.e. colorful, informal "dinner clothes"; and the pileus (freedman's hat) was worn by everyone.

It is believed by many that the Yule traditions started in Scandanavia:

In Scandinavia, the Norse celebrated Yule from December 21, the winter solstice, through January. In recognition of the return of the sun. It is this influence that we can see most in European Paganism. The Wheel of the Year divided into 4 parts was not that far of a leap for early European Pagans. They were already familiar with honoring the solstice periods as evidenced in The Stone Age Newgrange tomb and Stonehenge.

They recognized the Suns return and knew it meant fields would once again be ready for tilling and planting. Warmth would return to the world and darkness would fade. To the rural folk who worked hard during the year, the end of a lean winter was something to celebrate and the God of the Sun was something to be honored.

They Hopi celebrated Soyal through ritual and passing down the stories of their people:

December is the month where the katsinas or kachinas, the spirits that guard over the Hopi, come down from their world at the winter solstice or Soyal (also referred to as Soyaluna and Soyalangwu). They remain with the people for the first half of the Wheel of the Year until the summer solstice, when they return to their home in the mountains. The kachinas are benevolent anthropomorphic beings, who can be male or female, and represent a host of animals, plants and natural phenomena. They are greatly celebrated and revered and their presence is associated with rain, crops and healing the sick. 

During Soyal, which lasts nine days, sacred rituals are performed in chambers, called kivas, and many ceremonies involving dancing and singing take place; the kachinas may even bring gifts to the children. Soyal time is when stories are passed down to children from the elders and children are taught pivotal lessons like respecting others. The prayers and rituals help the Hopi to turn the sun toward its summer home and begin giving strength to all life for the growing season ahead. 

Some Ritual Ideas To Honor The Solstice

There are many different ways to celebrates the solstice that have origins in cultures from all around the world. Below are a few that will hopefully give you some new ideas on how you can honor the end of this long cycle of the year and set your intentions for the new year.

8WomenDream has 8 dream rituals for the winter solstice including this one: 

If this year was not the year for you, sit down at sunset, take out a piece of paper and write down everything negative that happened to you during the year. Light a fire in your fireplace, your barbecue, or a place outside. Create your own ritual prayer like, “Goodbye past I let you go. I set you free. Never to return.” Burn the paper while visualizing your troubles disappearing in the smoke and setting you free.

If you don’t want to burn your troubles, find a place where you can dig a small hole. Take your paper with your troubles and bury it. Place some stones around it and say farewell.

Sandra Ingerman writes about the tradition of Siberian Prayer Trees

In Siberia, trees are seen as seen as sacred as they bridge the heaven and the earth. There is a wonderful shamanic tradition in Siberia of creating a prayer tree.

Traditional food and drink offerings are left by the tree. The shaman in the community chants and gives thanks to the helping spirits for carrying the prayers of the people up to the universe so that the dreams manifest back on earth.

People tie ribbons loosely on the branches of the tree. As the tree will continue to grow it is important not to choke the branch with a ribbon that is tied on too tight.

The ribbons tied on the tree are empowered by individuals in the community with personal prayers as well as prayers for loved ones, families and for the community itself.

The Winter Solstice is also the Pagan Festival of Yule. There are many great pagan rituals to celebrate Yule, including the well known yule log which represents the birth of the new sun: 

The ceremonial Yule log was the highlight of the Solstice festival. In accordance to tradition, the log must either have been harvested from the householder's land, or given as a gift... it must never have been bought. Once dragged into the house and placed in the fireplace it was decorated in seasonal greenery, doused with cider or ale, and dusted with flour before set ablaze by a piece of last years log, (held onto for just this purpose). The log would burn throughout the night, then smolder for 12 days after before being ceremonially put out. Ash is the traditional wood of the Yule log. It is the sacred world tree of the Teutons, known as Yggdrasil. An herb of the Sun, Ash brings light into the hearth at the Solstice. 

A different type of Yule log, and perhaps one more suitable for modern practitioners would be the type that is used as a base to hold three candles. Find a smaller branch of oak or pine, and flatten one side so it sets upright. Drill three holes in the top side to hold red, green, and white (season), green, gold, and black (the Sun God), or white, red, and black (the Great Goddess). Continue to decorate with greenery, red and gold bows, rosebuds, cloves, and dust with flour.

The Health, Wealth, and Wisdom blog has a great look at a fire ceremony ritual to help release what you need to so you can step forward more freely into what you want to create. It has an accompanying video: 

Why: We release what no longer serves us on the Winter Solstice, because it is the darkest day of the year. We let go so that we can step freely into what is waiting for us, as the light begins to grow brighter with each day. We're doing it as an extended community to raise the energy level of letting go, together!

How: Make a releasing bundle. Gather friends and family around a hearth (or do this in sacred solitary), set the bundle safely aflame, and let the alchemical element of fire transform the old, as it knows how to do so well. Feast on Solstice treats and celebrate the return of the light. View the video created around my tribe's ceremony:

Mother of All Releasings Ceremony: Winter Solstice, 2012 from Pixie Campbell on Vimeo.

The Circle Sanctuary outlines many different rituals including this family bell ringing ceremony:  

  • This can take a simple form of the family ringing bells together at the moment of Solstice, or it can be a circle ceremony in and of itself. It also can be incorporated into other components of the celebration such as the Candlelight Circle or Yule Log Ceremony -- in these cases, bells can be rung after each blessing/sharing is stated.
  • Each family member chooses a bell to ring. Bells can be of varying sizes and types, but should blend well with each other when rung together. Brass bells and/or jingle bells are commonly available and have long time associations with the season.
  • For a bell ringing Solstice Circle, the family gathers together in a circle. Each has a bell in hand to ring. Parent(s) or some other family member serves as facilitator(s). She/he begins by saying a few words about the Solstice being the start of the new solar year and how the calendar year used today in many places around the world was structured on the solar year. The facilitator then describes how bells have been rung in connection with many types of celebrations. Bells have been rung at this time of year to ring out the old year and to ring in the new year. Then the facilitator invites the family to celebrate the Solstice with bells.
  • If the family is used to honoring the directions as part of spiritual practice (Wiccan, Native American, Buddhist, Hermetic, etc.), the family begins by facing each of the compass points (North, East, South, West) and ringing the bells in unison, honoring connections with each sacred direction. Then the family rings bells in the three directions connected with the center: upward, the place of the cosmos; downward, the place of the planet; and center; Divine unity.
  • In place of or in addition to individual direction honoring, the family rings all their bells together to celebrate their connection with each other as a family; then they ring them in unison again to celebrate their connection with the cycles of Nature; and then they ring them a third time in unison to celebrate their connection with life on planet Earth and all of Nature.
  • Then from the oldest to the youngest, each family member speaks a vision or wish for the planet for the coming year. After each one speaks, all ring bells together to affirm that vision/wish. After all have shared, the ceremony ends as the family calls out "Happy Solstice" or "Good Yule" three times and rings bells.


Image fdecomite x on flickr