21 December 2009
A Winter's Solstice.
The rising of the sun
And the running of the deer,
The playing of the merry organ,
Sweet singing in the choir.
Honoring Winter Solstice
"And so the Shortest Day came and the year died
And everywhere down the centuries of the snow-white world
Came people singing, dancing,
To drive the dark away..."
Susan Cooper's lovely poem, The Shortest Day, read at every Revels performance, makes a wonderful introduction or conclusion to a winter solstice ritual. The entire text is here.
A solstice candle, lit at sundown and allowed to burn in a safe place through the night, is a simple tradition deeply connected to ancient ways.
Sun-hued oranges are simple, and readily accessible, ritual and gift objects. They make beautiful ornaments when decorated with whole cloves. Pomander directions
In Japan, citrus fruits, especially the yuzu, a citron, as well as pumpkin figure prominently in traditions around winter solstice. A yuzu bath taken at winter solstice is said to bring health. Pumpkin is a traditional Japanese dish at this time of year. The traditions harken back to the days when Shinto, an ancient nature-based religion, was more prominent.
For a simple family ritual on Winter Solstice, you can pass around an orange. Each person peels off a portion of the rind, while thinking about one thing in their lives they would like to "peel away." Once it's fully peeled, the orange is passed around again. Each person eats a section, while thinking about one new wish or intention for the new year. If it's a mandarin orange, save the peel to make mandarin peel tea!
Nighttime wishing ritual: Go outside and settle into the night. Listen. Think about the night as if it were an island. Have in mind what is important to you — what you want to release from your life and what you want to welcome into your life in the coming year. Breathe each thing you want gone, one at a time, into the palm of your hand, then blow them away into the winter sky. Do the same with each desire you wish to enter your life. When you are finished, go inside and light a red candle. Put it in a safe place to burn out completely. The candle is a symbolic guiding light to draw your desires to you.
Honoring the directions: Many ancient cultures acknowledge and use the four compass points in their rituals. Here are some qualities for each direction in the Northern Hemisphere. These come from the wonderful book, The Winter Solstice:
North: cold, earth, challenge, endings, ice and snow, things waiting to germinate and be born.
East: awakening, new life, air, peace, triumph of the spirit.
South: fire, heat of life ripening in the earth, roots of our lives, stability.
West: water, restless seas and wandering spirits, movement, emotion, seeking new directions.
You can add or change these associations to make them your own.
A simple litany: From the same book, a simple prayer. You can make this both serious and fun. Every person in a group can contribute a line:
For the return of the sun — blessings and praise!
For the gifts we give and receive — blessings and praise!
For animals everywhere — blessings and praise!
You can continue this litany as long as you can keep thinking up new things.
Sun map: Here's a way to observe winter solstice for yourself (assuming the day is sunny). It is similar to sun maps found in Zuni homes. At a specific time on the winter solstice, (perhaps sunrise or noon), mark where the sun's rays shine inside your house, with a special mark or sign on a wall, or by hanging a feather or other object that casts a shadow at a specific point. I use an ornament shaped like the sun with a mirror in the center. Then in future years, you'll be able to observe the sun approaching winter solstice.
St. Francis of Assisi's Canticle of Brother Sun is a beautiful prayer. It has the same spirit of reverence and gratitude for the natural world as you'll find in Native American prayers.
About Yule logs: There are three modern interpretations of this ancient tradition. The first hews closest to the old ritual: Decorate a good-sized log (traditionally oak, also traditionally not purchased but found) with a few sprigs of evergreen tied in ribbon (probably red) and place it in your fireplace. For a ritual touch, write wishes for the new year on slips of paper and tuck them under the ribbon. The full tradition requires that the log be lighted on Yule (winter solstice or Christmas Eve, or both! your choice) along with a piece of the previous year's Yule log, then extinguished before burning out fully, to save a portion to light with the following year's log, hence completing the cycle of the year. Another interpretation of the tradition demands that the fire be kept going for the 12 days of Yule.
For those without fireplaces or for a different take on the tradition, you can create a candle version by taking a smallish log, sawing a flattened side as the base, then drilling holes fat enough to hold candles for a tabletop decoration.
There is more here.
The Winter Solstice has always had a bigger meaning for our family. As a kid, Mom always prepared our home to celebrate the seasons, winter was no different. Christmas time saw our home transformed by pine boughs, candles, music, food. I think of this day and am reminded of the dimming of the day, warmth from the fireplace, candlelight, quiet music softly stealing (usually by Mom at the piano) ... HAPPY BIRTHDAY, MOM!