The Winter Solstice is the longest night. What does this cosmic event have to do with gifts and candles, pigs and wine, freedom and fear, self-discipline, resolutions…weddings, handfastings, and the infinity symbol? A lot!
Solstices and Equinoxes
A little background first. Astrologically, the year is marked by four key events: the winter and summer solstices and the spring and autumn equinoxes. Astrologically, each of those events occurs when the Sun enters certain signs: Aries for the spring equinox / Cancer for the summer solstice / Libra for the autumn equinox, and Capricorn for the winter solstice. Each of those four events marks a significant point in the Sun’s journey to and from the Northern or Southern Hemisphere, depending on whether you live above or below the equator.
I live in Connecticut. A few days ago, I led a public ritual to celebrate the Winter Solstice. It was held at Meg’s Inspirations, a gift shop and spiritual boutique in Manchester, CT. I’ve led this ritual at Meg’s for several years. Each time, Meg’s husband, Ed, makes enough Yule logs for every person to take one home. Meg adds freshly cut spruce, pine, and holly, along with a tea light or taper, depending on the log.
In the world of my Celtic ancestors, the Yule log would have come from the tree cut for the May pole earlier in the year. After being sheathed with colorful ribbons woven by dancers celebrating the power of fertility, the pole would stand for months and then be cut into pieces so that each family could share the energy and good will of the community.
For the Winter Solstice, I usually arrange the logs on two banquet tables set end-to-end, with a sizeable candle at one end to represent the Sun. During the ritual, each person lights one of the Yule log candles to represent lighting the way for the Sun’s return.
Themes to Celebrate the Winter Solstice
One year, we talked about the arduous climb of the Capricorn goat, about the emotional baggage each of us might need to release, and about who might help us along the way.
One year, we explored the meaning of light and the parallels between the return of the Sun celebrated around the world for centuries and the birth of the Son, Jesus, celebrated by Christians around the world for over 2,000 years.
One year, we shared a children’s story about Mother Earth going to sleep until Father Sun returned to warm the land. We talked about the old meaning of the word “Yule” to call out in song and how the Moon told the children to go to a high place and “Yule” their father home. We sang and rang bells. Local musician Doug Yager played chimes, singing bowls, and a giant gong.
One year, we focused on a different kind of giving. I had cut holly leaves from green construction paper and gave one to each person. On it, they wrote what they would give to their family, their neighborhood, their community and beyond to make the world a better place. While Doug played the chimes and singing bowls, each person tucked their commitment into the 12-foot long bridge of Yule logs and lit one of the candles.
We used the green paper holly leaves at another Winter Solstice. This time, each person wrote down a blessing gift that someone else at the ritual would receive. The gifts included: Health. Prosperity. Time. A new job. Patience. Courage. Support. Love. Later in the ritual, each person went to the long table and chose a gift, sight unseen. As often happens, the synchronicity between what the person needs and what the person chooses is amazing. Right here on my desk is the gift I received that night: “Peace of mind and happiness in life.” As I help my husband through the fog of Alzheimer’s, the gift of peace of mind takes on new meaning for both of us.
During some of the Winter Solstice rituals, I’ve played the song, Light is Returning, by Mother Tongue on their CD, This Winter’s Night. You can find it on their website, EarthSpirit.com, on CDBaby, and on Amazon. For those of you looking for the Earth-centered roots of the season, this CD is exceptional. And I don’t benefit in any way from telling you about it – except the good karma!
I tell you about the various solstice rituals I’ve created so you’ll know there’s no one “right” way. And with 15-20 people gathered for about 90 minutes, there’s no way you can include everything you come across in your solstice research. And please don’t think a celebration of the Solstice has to be on Dec 21! I celebrate the return of light until early February!
At the solstice ritual this year, 2018, I talked about the Roman god Saturn and the mid-December festival the ancient Romans held called the Saturnalia. This festival goes back 2,000 years. It ran for 7 days, from about the 17th to the 23rd. Why Saturn? Well, because, astrologically, the sign of Capricorn is “ruled” by the planet Saturn. He represents, among other things, time…and the fact that we don’t have as much as we think we do. In fact, he is often shown as an old, old man with a long white beard, wearing a long white robe and carrying a scythe. An image we also associate with Death. It was no wonder. Winters were hard. The young, the old, and the weak often died in the winter.
So what did people do at the Saturnalia? They went wild! They ate. They drank. They engaged in raucous revelry. For 7 days! Think of the words, “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.”
If you lived back then, you’d want to increase your chances of surviving the winter. So you’d make a sacrifice to the god of the season, Saturn. Now Saturn was an agricultural god. A fitting sacrifice would be connected to the earth. That meant a roast pig. Think about the vintage Christmas cards that show a roast pig with an apple in its mouth. Think about the logo for Boar’s Head meats that you find in your grocery store’s deli dept. These are all symbols of celebration, abundance, good cheer, health and hope.
During the Saturnalia, people gave gifts, small tokens of affection, to friends and family and to people who provided a service during the year… The same way you might give a small gift to your hair stylist, your newspaper carrier, your child’s teacher.
Near the end of the Saturnalia, Dec 23, people often gave candles as gifts. Why? Because a candle flame was a symbol of the Sun. Giving a candle would be like giving a piece of the sun’s vitality, warmth, and health. If you want to give a really nice candle, give one from Crystal Journey Candles. They’re handcrafted in Essex, CT. My favorite is called Positive Energy, a blend of Frankincense, Dragon’s Blood, Sandalwood, and Saffron. I keep one in each of my desk drawers. I have no affiliation with the company and receive nothing by recommending their candles – other than some good karma.
New Year’s Resolutions
As I said, Saturn was an agricultural god. He was all about seeds, about sowing and reaping. He was known to buddy up with Janus, the two-headed god who presided at the threshold between the old and new years and could see both the past and the future at the same time. Honoring Janus and Saturn, people were encouraged to review the old year, plan for the new year, and make appropriate resolutions.
What’s appropriate? Let me share some background, courtesy of astrologer Donna Woodwell. The Romans thought the Greeks were really sophisticated so the Romans adopted aspects of Greek mythology, particularly from the Greek god Cronus. He’s the Greek agricultural god who civilized the people who were said to wander like beasts before Cronus came along. Under his guidance, there was a Golden Age. Everyone was equal and everyone obeyed the law. In fact, everyone had such perfect self-discipline, there was no need for legal punishment.
Think about that. The Romans admired the Greeks. The Greeks said self-discipline is the foundation of civilization and prosperity. So, at the turn of the year, an appropriate resolutions for the New Year would require…you guessed it…self-discipline. Think of your resolution as the key to creating your personal Golden Age.
Cronus, Zeus. Ops, and Lua
Now back to the Greek god Cronus. He had a fear. A big one. There was a prophecy that he would be destroyed by one of his children. To make sure that didn’t happen, he ate each child as it was born. (Keep in mind, the story is mythological, not historical.) Eventually, Zeus, the youngest child, overthrew his father, forced him to regurgitate his siblings. They were fine. And then Cronus was exiled. My guess is he – his attributes — came to Rome and were blended into the attributes of the Roman agricultural god Saturn. Now we can see the contradictions in the Saturnalia festival: freedom alongside fear, revelry alongside self-discipline.
There’s more. Over time, Saturn had at least two consorts. One was Ops. She was an Earth goddess of wealth and abundance. Her feast day, the Opalia, was Dec 19. It’s from her name, Ops, that we get the word opulence. Think about that the next time you see displays of wealth and abundance during December, everything from jewelry to feasts to extravagant Christmas lights, to television commercials about luxury cars wrapped in gigantic gift bows.
Before Ops, Saturn hooked up with the goddess Lua. Her connection is to, among other things, atonement and making amends. Those actions fit nicely with the call to look to the past and to the future and resolve to do better.
When the Saturnalia ended –usually December 21 – it took an average of three more nights before people could see visible evidence that the Sun was returning. That brings us to December 24, Christmas Eve. In the 4th century, the Roman empire, now Christianized, aligned the return of the s-u-n with the birth of the s-o-n. So whether you mark the solstice as only an astronomical event, or celebrate the season through an Earth-based spiritual path, or through a path of organized religion, we’re all connected through the energy of the sun/son, however you choose to spell the word.
Back to this year’s winter solstice ritual. This year, instead of setting up the altar as one long bridge of candles to the sun, I arranged the Yule logs and candles in a figure-8, the symbol of infinity. We talked about our comfort with giving and with receiving. Our feelings weren’t always equal. Then I had each person draw a word from a basket filled with hundreds of words I had prepared for the autumn equinox ritual earlier in that year. One by one, each person came to the altar. We charged—or energized—our word with the most powerful word in the world: our name. And then each of us voiced a commitment to the word we had chosen, lit a candle, and watched the infinity symbol come to life.
The word I had pulled from the basket was Ability. I came to the altar and said, “I am Zita and I have the ability to write the Batson book.” That’s a project that has both inspired and haunted me for two decades. Others said their names and spoke of their commitments to the words they had chosen: justice, recognition, patience, zest, and much more. When we closed the ritual, each person got to take home one of the Yule logs.
The Infinity Symbol and Weddings
At the opening of this podcast, I mentioned an association with the infinity symbol and weddings. As an officiant, I’ve often met couples for whom the infinity symbol has personal meaning. In fact, one of my couples – Paula and Tom, upon realizing that each had a small tattoo of the infinity symbol on the inner wrist, took it as a sign that they were meant to be together.
One of the ways to perform a handfasting ritual is to have the couple cross their wrists then hold each other’s hands. That position, or moodra, forms a figure-8 that encompasses the couple and their hands. Sometimes, a couple will make their vows while their hands are in that formation.
What I didn’t realize until this year, thanks to astrologer Donna Woodwell and a course I took at Astrology Hub, there’s more to the infinity symbol than the idea of love without end.
Picture a sun dial with a round, plate shaped piece of metal and an angular piece of metal going through the plate. Picture it pretty, like the ones you might have seen in photos of old English gardens, or in the garden at the historic Webb Barn in Old Wethersfield, CT. As Donna explained, if you were to use the sun dial and make a dot on a piece of paper to mark the position of the sun every day for a year, and then connect the dots, you’d have the infinity symbol. Okay, it might be lopsided depending on where you live, but you’d have a figure-8.
Listening to Donna, I had an a-ha moment. When couples in love are drawn to the infinity symbol, they aren’t only saying that their love will never end, they’re accepting an ancient understanding that in marriage, as in life, yes, the dark will come, and yes, the light will follow. Throughout the years, they may give each other small gifts as the Romans did during the Saturnalia. They’ll enjoy abundance of some kind. They’ll face fears. They’ll make amends. They’ll make resolutions for each year and vows for a lifetime. Trusting in each other, they’ll step to the rhythm of an eternal seasonal dance.
So, whether you’re planning a wedding ceremony, continuing a solstice celebration, or pondering resolutions for the New Year, in this season of light, may peace and plenty be the first to lift the latch on your door.
For “Light is Returning” on the CD “The Winter’s Night” by MotherTongue
For Crystal Journey Candles https://www.crystaljourneycandles.com/
For astrologer Donna Woodwell https://donnaphilosophica.com/
For Astrology Hub http://astrologyhub.com
For the 19th century Webb Barn in Old Wethersfield, CT, home of a beautiful sun dial in the wedding garden https://webb-deane-stevens.org/historic-houses-barns/the-webb-barn/
For Meg’s Inspirations, a gift shop and spiritual boutique in Manchester, CT http://megsinspiratins.com