Welcome Solstice Light
At the December solstice, the sun is directly above the farthest point south of the equator it ever reaches, giving those of us in the northern hemisphere short days and those of us in the southern hemisphere long ones. The earth’s slow tilt from north to south and back again pauses at the solstices before reversing directions. The sun seems to stand still, hence the name solstice (from Latin solstitium “sun stops”). Awareness of these shifts in our planet and the corresponding seasons have been observed and celebrated by humans for millenia.
In Ireland when the sun reaches the winter solstice, its beams penetrate into the heart of the passage tomb at New Grange illuminating the triple spiral carved deep within the chamber. This was a moment of vital practical and ritual significance to the ancient Neolithic farmers that built this and other passage tombs in northern Europe. The natural order of the world had been maintained; darkness had reached its limit. These womb shaped tombs may have represented the forces of life and death conceptualized as a Great Goddess. At winter solstice the tomb becomes the fertilized womb from which new life will emerge in the spring.
Yule has its origins as an ancient Germanic holiday, which was celebrated for twelve days beginning on the winter solstice. In Christian times Yule came to signify the twelve days of Christmas beginning with the birth of the Christ child on Christmas day.
There are many inherited traditions that accompany this return of the light in the northern hemisphere. How do our spirits rise once again to meet the light and prepare for a new cycle of growth? It is a gift to have grown beyond the responsibilities of raising children and establishing careers and to still be alive. What are the imperatives of our lives now?
Just as the solstice marks a boundary in nature’s extremes, aging marks boundaries within the course of our lives. As we are pulled away from the compulsory responsibilities of life, we are given the freedom to explore new aspects of ourselves. We may now have time to paint, write poetry, try our hand at acting, take up bridge, or open ourselves to developing psychic powers. What light is available to us now? What beckons on the horizon of tomorrow?
This month as I track the countdown to Christmas on my Advent calendar, I also have been watching the moon shrink from full on the eleventh of December to new on Christmas. The celebration of the returning light of the sun contrasts with the darkening moon. May the new moon which is hidden from view on earth rise in our hearts and help us set our course for the month to come.
The hope of solstice comes from the rebirth of light, but first we must experience the darkness. There always comes a moment in writing these e-letters when I despair of creating anything worthwhile. All seems impossible. At that point, I inhabit the internal landscape that matches the winter solstice here in Salem, MA with dark folding in by four in the afternoon and treacherous patches of ice covering city sidewalks.
I think of Thomas Hardy’s poem “The Darkling Thrush” which he wrote one December afternoon in England in 1900. Hardy himself felt the pall of the season. “Winter’s dregs made desolate/ The weakening eye of day.” In that moment when the nineteenth century was a corpse and the twentieth century a story unwritten, Hardy stood at the gate of his Dorset home and listened to a bird’s song. “An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small, / In blast-beruffled plume, / Had chosen thus to fling his soul/ Upon the growing gloom.” Trembling through this song was “Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew/ And I was unaware.”
In the bleak midwinter, hope comes with the gradual lengthening of the days. It gives us the courage to face the future with optimism and to fight on. May we use this moment of the earth’s turning away from the extremes of dark or light as an opportunity for new birth. May we expand our consciousness beyond the confines of our self-centered concerns and allow our hearts to crack open to reveal intimations of light and love surrounding us. May we see our lives as they unfold in the mind of God, the mystery beyond our knowing or ability to name.
May we lift our voices in joy and gratitude this solstice night. We are one in the light. We are one in the dark. We are one earth turning as we tilt now toward, and now away, from the sun.
In the spirit of warmth and light,
Lessons of Winter Solstice
Allow yourself some quiet time to encounter the darkness with its frustration, longing, and despair. Sit with all you cannot change. Accept your limitations and your fate. Recognize when it is time to surrender, to fold the tent of your ego and accept what is. Appreciate that even suffering has limits and that the dark has lessons to teach.
Then do something that brings joy to you or to another person by performing an act of kindness or creating a moment of beauty. In gratitude for the wisdom to accept what we cannot change, light a candle of hope both figuratively in your heart and physically to brighten your home on this the longest night of the year.