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Winter Solstice: Coaxing and Celebrating the Return of the Light

The Winter Solstice is a chance to celebrate the return of the light.
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Millions around the northern hemisphere mark the winter solstice in December, the shortest day and longest night of the year. Indigenous Peoples commemorate it to varying degrees; most indigenous cultures—most notably the Maya and Incas of Mexico and Peru, respectively—had a solid grasp on astronomy and were able to predict astronomical phenomena with precision. The Winter Solstice was no exception.

The Solstice time depends on where you are. For some it occurs early Thursday morning, for others on Wednesday evening. The UK news site Only Kent has compiled the exact times of the solstice around the world using the site Indian Country Today Media Network's intro on December 20 covered the science and the cultural significance of it all. You can see what the earth looks like this instant via the U.S. Naval Observatory.

In ancient times, the original peoples of this earth noted the days growing shorter and shorter, the nights longer. It’s easy to see how ceremonies grew up around this phenomenon, given that Indigenous Peoples (or pagans, as they were dubbed by the early Christians) would not necessarily have known why this was happening.

On this day we are all praying, on some level, for the darkness to end. “Just make it stop!” the ceremonies seem to say.

The Incas, of course, are busy marking their summer solstice in December, being just a hair south of the equator. But for winter the Maya are going all-out this year, even starting the countdown to the end of the Long Calendar, which occurs during the winter solstice of 2012, one year from now.

From Europe to Asia, this ebbing and timid returning of the light is celebrated and longed for. In Scandinavian and Germanic countries around this time they celebrate Saint Lucia, bedecking a chosen girl in white robes with a blood-red sash and sending her around to work healing miracles. Belgium is home to the Koleduvane festival, which celebrates the birth of the sun. And Poland has the festival of Gody, during which people forgive one another and share food.

In China the Dongzhi Festival pulls family together and celebrates the cycles of nature, the push-pull of yin and yang that signifies the cosmos’s balance and harmony. Dongzhi literally means “the Extreme of Winter,” and the shifting of this balance back toward the light increases the flow of positive energy.

On this day in Japan, the sun goddess Amateratsu emerges from a cave, as depicted in this painting by Utagawa Toyokuni III.

Japanese Sun goddess Amaterasu emerging from a Cave, "ORIGIN OF IWATO KAGURA DANCE"

Japanese Sun goddess Amaterasu emerging from a Cave, "ORIGIN OF IWATO KAGURA DANCE"

Closer to home, Canadian aboriginals take various approaches. The Turtle Lodge is taking the opportunity to call elders and youth together for a four-day mentoring session that will conclude with an all-night solstice vigil to mark the longest night of the year, according to the institute’s website.

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“Traditionally Indigenous People have always gone into ceremony to celebrate what is considered the longest night—the Winter Solstice. It has always been a time when we have given of ourselves spiritually and prepared to greet the New Sun, with intentions of living vision that is anchored to Spirit—Vision that has a spiritual foundation,” the lodge’s site says.

“So much has been lost because we have not allowed sacred law to be the foundation of how we should live and behave as a human family. Prophecy foretold that we would come forward as Indigenous People in the time of the arrival of a New Life, to share the richness of a belief system that connects us to the Spirit and to everything in Nature that is alive. At the heart of Anishnabe belief, the Seven Teachings are applicable to all humanity; and can be the lasting foundation upon which a peaceful world can be built.”

The greeting of the new sun on the morning after the Solstice “is in acknowledgement of our commitment to support the New Life,” the lodge says in its invitation to young people.

But farther north, a description by the explorer Franz Boas paraphrased by the Arctic Portal notes that “the celebration of winter in an Inuit community in Qiqirtat (Kekerten Island, Canada), feast was not connected to the winter solstice, but prepared the hunting of the winter season,” the Arctic Portal site says.

It is said that it is always darkest before the dawn. So too with the Winter Solstice, and in this we celebrate the return of the light. Pagans decorated inside their homes with plants and branches to bring in fertility and promote growth; this has evolved into the modern Christmas tree.

In Christian tradition, of course, the baby Jesus is born around the Solstice, signifying yet another type of light: a savior, he who will show us who we really are while saving us from ourselves, or trying to.

“Whichever tradition, the story reminds us there's more to life than the material realm,” wrote Gary Gach in the inaugural entry of Psychology Today’s blog “Where Buddha Meets Freud.” “Our winter solstice stories seem to all tell of light, no matter whether flame light or star light, the inward light or the sacredness of light itself. In the telling, we are unburdened and feel lighter.”

In Alaska the exact hour of the solstice is at 8:30 p.m. local time, as the Alaska Dispatch points out. It comes four hours into a night stretching more than 18 hours long, a darkness that over the season can have a psychological impact.

“The solstice is not a symbol or a metaphor: it is a concrete astronomical event that has significant consequences for life on earth,” wrote Alan Fogel, a professor of psychology at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, a year ago on Psychology Today’s “Body Sense” blog. “The solstice takes on psychological meaning for us because it affects our mind and body as beings living on a restless planet.”

Technically the solstice marks the instant at which the earth’s axis stops tilting away from the sun and starts going back the other way, heralding the eventual return of summer. What it means on the ground is that the worst is over. The sun is done abandoning Mother Earth and is slowly but surely coming back. To be sure, dark days are ahead. But within them are contained the promise of longer tomorrows.