I get so very excited these days when the great wheel of time swings around to mid-winter’s eve. Let me preface by assuring you that I was once a tremendous humbug about Christmas time. I felt like there was magic happening but somehow the stories I was being told about the reasons for this magic fell short for me. So I started to research the origins of Christmas.
That’s when I discovered this amazing thing. This amazing truth that binds us all in an undercurrent so powerful that we are swept out of our routines by it. All the seasonal traditions – wreaths, candles, bells, bonfire, gift-giving, gathering with your loved ones – all of them are born of ancient rituals once used by our ancestors to call back the sun.
I do say ‘our’ ancestors, and I do not need to know who your ancestors are to say that. Look it up. I don’t care if you are Lebanese or Latvian, Irish or Icelandic, Japanese or Javanese…look into your myths for the story of the departure of the sun, for the waning of the light… and you will find it. Look into the history of your peoples and you will find that they did this. Jewish folks may be thinking that Hannukah is a celebration of a historical event so does not fall into this category, but many scholars believe that this holiday of light replaced an older Solstice celebration in the Jewish calendar.
Sunwatchers or stargazers of ancient times saw the sun stand still. That’s what Solstice means: “Sun stands still”. Y’see, as the year goes along the sun can be seen rising and setting in a southerly trajectory along the horizon. Ancient astrologers and sunwatchers marked that passage so they could predict when to plant and when to harvest. What they saw, all of them, in every country, was that during the 6 days around winter solstice, the sun stops travelling along the horizon. It stops in one place, rising and setting there for nearly a week. And every one of those days, the sun rises lower in the sky, making the daytime shorter.
Our ancestors worried that the sun was losing some celestial battle for its life, or that it had lost interest in caring for the people of the world. Every culture on the planet created a plan to call that sun back. Among many Aboriginal peoples, the Raven was called upon to steal the sun back from the evil wizard Tupilak once again. Goddess Beiwe was summoned by the Saami to bring back the sun and the sanity and hope of light. Mesopotamians took to the streets to act out the eternal battle between their god of fertility and the dragon of the underworld. In Japan, Ameterasu had to be coaxed from the cave of her self-imposed exile. The Bushmen of Africa tossed their Sunman into the sky so that all could share his light. The Kachinas were called back from the sacred mountains to bring the magic of all life to the Hopi. The Oak King rose to kill his brother, the Holly King, and take back the throne in their eternal cycle of rising and falling to each other at the solstices. The Incans tethered the sun to specific ceremonial stations to keep it from wandering off.
Think about it. Before there was even any contact between these ancient cultures, each one of them performed some kind of magic to call back the support of the sun. From isolated pockets of civilization, this magic of hope and renewal stretched up from all corners of the earth, in unknowing synchronicity, to pull the sun back from the brink. This simple magic of Solstice united every human on the planet, at a time when some did not even know there were other people. I can get pretty verklempt about it when I really imagine that unified intention.
I often think, if only everyone knew this.
We really have an opportunity to take down some cultural walls here and join together knowingly in this old tradition.
That’s my Solstice wish for all… a sense of unity and belonging to something greater than your human self.
As the Romans used to say,
(Hail the Return of the Invincible Sun)