We’ve arrived at the dead of night in our yearly cycle: the winter solstice. Nature’s might is on full display, in its harshest and iciest but also in its quiet stillness. It’s a reminder to rest, reflect, and come together with those we love most.
Whether it’s Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or something entirely different, the winter solstice has been celebrated throughout human history. We have these ancient people and their pagan practices to thank for many of our current traditions. Here’s where they came from.
It was Ancient Rome who brought us the bacchanal—needless to say, these toga-donned ancestors of ours knew how to party.
Their winter solstice celebration was called “Saturnalia.” We’re talking about “Before Christ,” so the reason for the season was to celebrate their god, Saturn. And Saturn is a big deal.
It was their belief that Saturn controlled time and agriculture, and during his celebration he’s offered wreaths and greenery. Of course, it’s not a wholly somber event. Romans put their debauchery on display while celebrating the long night. The feast involved plenty of drinking, merriment, mischief, and dancing that we can still relate to today. Even their slaves were invited to party, not on the clock, but as esteemed equals.
Though today’s Christmas celebrations are merry and bright, Germans also acknowledged the dark side.
Most people know about the anti-hero Krampus. A companion of St Nikolaus, this goat/demon cross-breed handed out punishment when Santa handed out presents. Bad little boys and girls would either be eaten, beaten, or taken to Hell. So you better be good for goodness sake…
“The night is darkest before the dawn”
The common tradition of hanging a pickle in the tree also has a dark backstory. One wintry night long ago, it was said that children were abducted and held captive in a pickle barrel. St. Nick, with his wintry magic, saved them. So today, if you find the pickle in the tree, you get a special gift.
If that’s not spooky enough, some countries also include spiders in their Christmas traditions. Cobwebs are appreciated in Christmas trees in Germany and Ukraine since they suggest the presence of spiders. Why have spiders in your Yule tree? Because it keeps the bugs at bay.
Today we don’t really worry about that, but we still hang cobwebs–albeit an updated version. Garland is a throwback to this practice of protecting evergreens from pests.
EGYPT, BRITAIN, AND BEYOND
The solstice is the turning point from dark to light, the longest night being a signal of the dawn to come.
No one knew this better than the ancients. Their culture was heavily centered around astrological events. The Egyptians, for example, oriented the pyramids to frame the rising sun during the spring equinox. During the winter solstice, they celebrated the rebirth of the sun god, Ra.
Just recently, a tomb called Aswan was discovered, revealing an instance where they honored the rising solstice sun. In the tomb of Aswan, a statue of an Elephantine leader was perfectly bathed in light only on the morning of the winter solstice.
A similar phenomena happens at Stonehenge. There are many mysteries about this ancient site, with the only clue to its origins or uses being the way the sun peaks through its southwest stone circle during the winter solstice.
In Iran, Yalda is a celebration of light over dark, and the birthday of their own sun god Mithra.
One thing is common about this dark night: people are reveling in the inevitable return of the sun.
With so many of our ancient ancestors fixing their eyes on the stars, its no wonder the intrigue continues in modern day. The winter solstice also marks the beginning of Capricorn season.
The goat, which, according to legend was given a fish’s tail to escape an earthly monster, is the symbol of Capricorn. Capricorns are known for being fearless, ambitious, and relentless in their pursuits–despite difficult obstacles. There is a true strength to Capricorns, the goats who climb steep summits with no option of failing.
Whether you are a Capricorn or a Catholic, Jewish or Germanic, the winter solstice is a chance to come together to celebrate the darkness. If yin and yang were a day, it would be this. Perfect harmony: rest and excitement, gratitude and reflection.
Happy Capricorn Season and Winter Solstice to all.