The winter solstice marks the beginning of our journey back to light
Historically, winter has always been my least favorite season. The cold weather, gray skies, and nightfall that arrives painfully early used to make this time of year feel not only interminably long but, frankly, depressing. This was especially true of the years when I lived in Chicago, when the winter seemed endless.
Maybe this is why I never paid much attention to the winter solstice. Typically arriving on or around December 21 each year, the solstice marks the shortest day of the year. And while the days technically begin to get longer from this point forward, the solstice itself has always felt like it was simply heralding the long, dark months still to come. Besides, with the solstice arriving right before the rush of winter holidays and the mad scramble to finish work projects before the year’s end, I always lost sight of it.
Once I began studying the traditions of our ancestors, however, my perspective changed. Now, the winter solstice is my favorite event of the year.
The word “solstice” comes from the Latin words sol (sun) and sistere (stop). Ancient people kept close track of the seasons, and to them, the sun momentarily appeared to stop moving. For thousands of years, people around the world have been honoring the occasion in a variety of ways.
While they still faced months of winter, they viewed the darkest night of the year as a reason to celebrate. From that point forward, they knew, the days would gradually become longer and the earth would offer new plant and animal life to sustain them.
According to the children’s book The Shortest Day: Celebrating the Winter Solstice, ancient Romans 2,000 years ago decorated their doors with evergreen wreaths, hung mistletoe and holly in their homes, and gifted each other evergreen branches as symbols of good luck. One thousand years ago, Druid priests in England and Ireland decorated oak trees with golden apples and candles, while in Sweden, girls wore crowns of evergreen and candles and handed out warm buns to family and friends. And in Peru, the Incas celebrated with a festival. They marked the occasion by lighting a fire with a reflection of the sun. Then, they carried that fire into temples and kept it burning year-round.
Why all this celebration of the longest, darkest night of the year? Because our ancestors understood it not as a peak point in a season of scarcity, but instead as the return of light and life itself. While they still faced months of winter, they viewed the darkest night of the year as a reason to celebrate. From that point forward, they knew, the days would gradually become longer and the earth would offer new plant and animal life to sustain them.
Dig even farther back in history, and you’ll find an even deeper significance to the winter solstice rooted in a profound reverence for darkness. Our ancestors seemed to treat darkness and light not as polar opposites, but as inseparable. In fact, they were so inseparable that light was thought to be borne of darkness itself.
Consider how human life begins — deep within a mother’s dark womb. This is true of other animals, and also of plant life. The magic that causes a seed to sprout into something green and alive begins deep within the dark body of the Earth herself. Watching all this life emerge from the darkness within mothers, it’s no surprise that our ancestors once thought of the creator of life as female. It also makes sense that they might have met the darkest night of the year not with depression but with elation, for it is within darkness that all life is born.
We see this, too, in how ancient people understood the cycles of the moon. Long before we measured time by the movement of the sun, we observed the phases of the moon. We noticed that that the faintest sliver of a crescent moon always appeared after the darkest night sky. We’d witness that faint sliver of moon grow, reaching its peak as a glowing orb in the sky, then begin to wane, becoming smaller and smaller before disappearing into darkness.
Where did the sliver of a new crescent moon come from? Where did the final hint of the old moon go? They both began and ended in darkness, always. Darkness, then, is the holiest of places. It is the birthplace of light and life, and the gentle tomb which receives all that dies. This is very likely why many ancient goddesses were seen as both keepers of light and darkness, overseers of both birth and death.
While the tradition of goddess worship has mostly disappeared among Western peoples, you’ll find similar themes of honoring darkness and the winter solstice in Christianity. The birth of Jesus, who is often referred to as the “light of the world,” is traditionally celebrated on December 25, conveniently close to the winter solstice. Historian and author Barbara Walker has noted that many pagan mysteries celebrated the birth of a divine child at the winter solstice, and that traditions like Yule logs, mistletoe, holly, and feasts were originally associated with the worship of a mother goddess who brought forth a divine child.
But back to the solstice itself. Our ancestors once considered this darkest night sacred, because it is both the still point of death and the place where light and life are born. Death and life are not only inseparable, but we need both to survive and thrive. The dead and decaying plants, animals, and yes, even humans, sink gently into the darkness of the earth, feeding new life and growth. It’s a never-ending cycle.
While every season offers powerful lessons, the winter solstice gives us a profound opportunity to be present to all that is dying all around us. This includes the actual death of plant life we witness outside our windows at this time of year, as well as the symbolic death of old ways of seeing and viewing the world that no longer serve us. It’s a powerful time, too, to reflect upon what is wanting to be released from our own lives, whether it’s a relationship, a job, or an old habit. And because this still point holds both life and death, it’s a beautiful opportunity to listen deeply within to what wants to be born, both personally and collectively.
Entering into the stillness of the winter solstice with these questions in our hearts can be a beautiful place to begin. A healthier world begins with a dream of what is possible.
I like to think of this kind of inner listening as a form of sacred dreaming. For me, the act of sacred dreaming feels different than intention setting, which often emanates from the mind. Sacred dreaming is the step before intention setting, when we enter into the dark, still point of our own hearts, connect with the flame within and listen for what wants to emerge from our lives.
This powerful turning point calls on us to dream about the kind of world we want to inhabit. Our news stories, politicians, and even our movies and TV shows are full of stories about all the things that are going wrong, or might go wrong if we don’t make the right choices. What are our dreams for the future we do want to have, for ourselves and our descendants, and how are we nurturing them? Entering into the stillness of the winter solstice with these questions in our hearts can be a beautiful place to begin. A healthier world begins with a dream of what is possible.
The solstice also offers us the opportunity to reconnect with the natural rhythms of the season. One way we do this is by keeping electric lights off as much as possible throughout the day (I make an exception for Christmas lights). In my home, the darkness of the morning and the early arrival of dusk means we usually eat both breakfast and dinner by candlelight, which my young children love. I love it, too — somehow the lack of artificial light imbues the entire day with a hushed, still quality, and everything seems to move more slowly. In the evening, we light candles, give thanks for all the gifts of the passing year, and share how we might shine our own light in the year to come.
In his poem, “Burnt Norton,” T. S. Eliot wrote, “except for the point, the still point, there would be no dance, and there is only the dance.” The winter solstice represents the still point — the moment when the world pauses, and we spiral inward to rediscover, once again, the light of new life waiting to be born through us and into the world.