Wheel of the Year

The Pagan Spirit of Winter Solstice

Witch of the White Wood, 2014, by Eran Fowler

Solstice is here! Solstice Blessings!

Solstice arrived earlier today, December 21st, at 03:27 UTC, manifesting as Winter Solstice north of the Equator (and the beginning of astronomical winter) and as Summer Solstice south of the Equator (marking the beginning of astronomical summer). At sunrise, over several days, the sun appears to stand still, arising in the same spot each day as the energies shift from waning to waxing in the north and from waxing to waning in the south.

The roots of the word “solstice” come to us from the Latin words meaning “standing still Sun” — and much around me here in Vancouver truly is standing still! We typically do not get a lot of snow but we are currentlly inundated with a heavy blanket of snow, closing roads and airports and wreaking havoc on the city streets. But it truly is still . . . few cars on the road, barely any wind so the branches are still heavy with snow, and there is more quiet without the additional roar of planes arriving and departing at the nearby airport.

Here are some snow scenes from our balcony:

It truly is feeling like a “time of no time”, which is how this time of winter solstice was celebrated in earlier times.

A time of no time

For me, Winter Solstice has always had a witchy and pagan essence to it. Winter Solstice was celebrated for thousands of years by our ancestors long before organized religions developed. At its most fundamental, Winter Solstice is a time to celebrate the return of the light and Father Sun, connect with the energies of Mama Earth and — for many — a time to honour our Ancestors in those months of the long nights. It was a deeply spiritual time, with each culture developing their own traditions for rest, renewal and rebirth with the rebirth of the Sun.

And during these festivals, it truly was a “time of no time” as many cultures inserted days into the various lunar-solar calendars to bring them back into balance (much as we do with a Leap Year day at the end of February every four years), and traditional work was abandoned or minimized.

The Roman Empire celebrated this time as Saturnalia, in honour of the god Saturn (and likely rooted in the early Greek festival Kronia honouring the god Cronus), with a week of merry making, feasting, gift giving and a time of mis-rule (associated with many a festival in the wheel of the year) where masters served their servants, etc. Sounds rather like some Christmas traditions to me!

Some of my English pagan ancestors likely celebrated the Solstices with the Oak King and the Holly King, dual aspects of the Horned God. At Winter Solstice,  those practising those Druidic traditions welcomed the rebirth of the Sun (the Oak King) and at Summer Solstice, the Holly King would begin his reign with the the waning cycle of Father Sun.

The period between Samhain and Winter Solstice was recognized as a time when the veil between this physical world and the Otherworld were thinner, when communication was between the worlds was easier and more accessible, a time to hear the whispers of one’s ancestors. Some believed that spirits roamed the night on Solstice Eve and Christmas Eve, just as they do at Samhain.  

Solstice Lore in the Irish Celtic World 

Solstice light piercing the passing at Newgrange

In one Celtic tale, as Winter blankets the earth, the goddess Ériu — seen as both a beautiful woman and a “Hag”, or Crone, and for whom Ireland is named — resurrects Lugh, her lover, and positions him high in the sky as the Sun. She shares her wisdom with him so he can once again reclaim his supremacy and strength — but her energy is depleted, transforming her from a young Maiden/Mother to The Crone, and their cycle begins again.

In another variation, Lugh — who we also celebrate at Lúnasa (aka Lughnasadh) in early August (northern hemisphere) or early February (southern hemisphere) — is sacrificed into the land as seed following the harvest, transforming him into a god of the dark energies to be reborn at Solstice as a god of the Sun and Light.

Newgrange (in Irish Sí an Bhrú, located in Brú na Bóinne, a UNESCO World Heritage Site) in Ireland, is a 5000+ year old Neolithic earth mound monument, and is perhaps the most dramatic example of this concept of rebirth and its importance to early Celts. The monument itself is essentially the womb of the Great Mother goddess, which is pierced by a shaft of light by the god Dagda at Winter Solstice, impregnating her with Young Angus aka Angus Óg.

Here is a video from the RTE (Irish TV broadcaster) on Solstice at Newgrange:

Winter Solstice Plants and Trees

Much of the decorations and symbols we associate with Christmas come to us directly from our pagan ancestors, such as these three sacred plants associated with Winter Solstice.

Holly and the Divine Masculine

Holly signifies:

  • the rule of the Holly King
  • the Divine Masculine
  • good luck for men
  • hope for life in winter
  • warmth of blood  and fire
  • a retreat for Sprites and other fairies

Click here for more info on Holly from the Inner Journey Events blog.

Ivy and the Divine Feminine

The twisting vines of ivy, often found on decaying trees,  was seen as a symbol of eternity (and resurrection)  and friendship and connection as it wove its way through forests, fences and on cottage walls.  It was believed that wearing a crown of ivy could clear the mind. I wonder if this was influenced by the Roman god of wine and revelry, who also wore an ivy crown! 

Women wove ivy necklaces and crowns for clarity, to honour the Goddess, and for the vitality of Mother Earth.

Click here for more info on Ivy from the Inner Journey Events blog.

Mistletoe – The Druid’s Herb

Last but definitely not least, Mistletoe!It was sacred to the Druids, symbolizing life through death, as well as sex & fertility. They believed it to have a powerful magic: a shield against darkness. Mistletoe has a symbiotic relationship with Oak, a sacred tree. 

It embodies the essences of both gods and goddesses, and was given as a token, and kiss, for peace, and was honoured on the  Feast of Potentials. 

Click here for more info about mistletoe in the Inner Journey Events blog.

If you think of Christmas and what comes to mind is holly, ivy, mistletoe, Christmas trees, Yule Logs,candles, flying reindeer, ghosts of Christmas (past, present and future)… well, hello my pagan friend!

How will you honour this time of rest, renewal and rebirth at Winter Solstice?

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