Winter Solstice Myths and Legends

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Druids, Norse, Christians: it’s been universal for us over the centuries to have concocted various ceremonial activities and festivals to coincide with major astronomic events.

For those of us who live in the earth’s northern hemisphere, the winter solstice is gradually approaching. With Latin roots and meaning “sun standing still,” the solstice is the 2-3 day period in which the arced path the sun cuts across the sky stops descending and appears to come to a standstill until it begins its slow trek upward. As the earth revolves around the sun on an tilted axis that reaches a maximum of 23 degrees and 26 minutes, for a brief moment on December 21st or 22nd, our planet is tilted closest to the sun in the southern hemisphere (hence, it is summer solstice for those living there), and farthest from the sun in the north. As a result, on the day of the solstice, the period of daylight for northern regions is the shortest (and the period of night is the longest) of the year. In areas near the Arctic Circle, daylight can last for barely a few hours. Throughout history, numerous myths, legends, and ceremonial rituals have marked the arrival of the solstice.

Shorter days, colder temperatures, and the associated dramatic changes in the patterns of every living thing have all contributed to the many beliefs and practices associated with the solstice. Many myths and legends arose to both explain and understand the ebbing of the sun’s light, warmth, and influence. While some of these myths and legends have either faded in prevalence and influence or become substantially modified over time, others have endured for centuries. Also, over time, many customs, practices, stories, and elements of folklore from different cultures were borrowed or became blended. And although it’s tempting to think that our modern traditions surrounding “midwinter” have been with us for a long time, in fact they have evolved considerably over the years and will continue to evolve in the future.

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For folks living in latitudes farthest from the tropics, the extent of the sun’s presence and influence was much greater, and its retreat was regarded with some dread as well as anxious hope for eventual rebirth. The pagan celebration of Saturnalia (Saturn was the god of agriculture) might have been one of the first solstice-related festivals to incorporate the custom of gift-giving. It also might have helped foster a tradition of goodwill toward men at that time of year because during the several days of the celebration, slaves were allowed to reverse roles with their masters (a benevolent emperor permitting). The Druids may have been among the first to use the dominant colors and fragrances of the season and to place herbs, branches, and wreaths in their homes to adorn as well as sanctify them. In the Norse country, the goddess Frigga was not only thought to labor hard to bring back the lost light of day but also to determine the fortunes and fate of humans for the coming new year at her weaving wheel. The word “jul” (meaning “wheel) is the basis for the term “yuletide” and the legend of a gift-giving elf, Odin, is probably a major inspiration along with the legend of Sinterklaas (St. Nicholas) for the later myth of Santa Claus.

Fixing the celebration of the birth of Christ at the period near the solstice didn’t even happen until the time of Pope Julius in the fourth century, and there’s little doubt that the decision to do so was in large measure for the purpose of supplanting pagan and other celebrations occurring at that time of year. Moreover, over time, many other myths, legends, rituals, and practices became interwoven to form the dominant parts of what has come to be our more popular Christmas traditions.

Just as it is inherent to us to marvel at the mysteries of nature, it’s been universal for us over the centuries to have concocted various ceremonial activities and festivals to coincide with major astronomic events. And once again, as it has for so many eons before, on Dec 21st at 23:38 (UTC), the sun will again appear to stop its downward decline and briefly stand still before beginning its inevitable upward climb. And, as has been the case for many centuries, human beings across the globe from all sorts of cultural backgrounds will participate in the ongoing evolution of our commemoration of the solstice. Doesn’t it make you wonder what the festivities will look like in the year 3000?

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