Tomorrow is officially the beginning of winter – the winter solstice. It will be the shortest day and longest night of the year for us in the Northern Hemisphere. The term “solstice” comes from the Latin word “soltitium”, which means “sun standing still”. The sun appears directly over the Tropic of Capricorn and seems to stand still for a brief moment, before reversing direction as it reaches its southernmost position. This is caused by the rotation of the earth on its tilted axis, and is in fact the very moment when the Northern Hemisphere is tilted at its further point away from the sun.
Throughout history, people have observed the solstice as a seasonal milestone. The winter solstice is one of the oldest holiday traditions, and spiritually significant in many different faiths. In ancient times, the Romans held a weeklong December feast called Saturnia, to honor the God of Saturn. Some say that December 25th was chosen to celebrate Christmas because it coincided with the date of the Roman festival of Dies Natalis Solis Invicti – birthday of the Unconquered Sun. The word “yule” – used to describe the Christmas season – actually comes from the Norse word “jol”, which referred to the pre-Christian winter solstice Festival of Juul.
Stonehenge – one of the most famous astronomical monuments in the world – was carefully aligned on a sightline with the winter solstice sunset. It is a popular gathering place for those who celebrate the winter solstice. One thing most people agree on about this time of year: it is a time to reflect not only on the changes in nature, but also the changes that have occurred during the past year and how they have affected each of us. It is also a good occasion to spend time with the family and friends who are important in our lives.
As we gear up for Christmas and the celebrations of the new year, we are bound to get caught up with last minute shopping, parties and obligations that demand our attention. There will be little time to spend looking within and attending to our own spiritual needs. No matter what you happen to believe in, it is important to take the time to reflect on what was, what is, and what will come.
Here are a few ways to celebrate the winter solstice:
- Take time off – especially from media and electronics.
- Make an effort to appreciate nature; since it is such a short day, pay special attention to the light. Bring natural light in during the day, and soft light like candlelight or firelight in after dark.
- Get together with friends or family, and share thoughts about the past year – share what changes have occurred both around and within everyone.
- Spend some time alone, and consider what you may be ready to let go of – fears, judgments or even goals that may no longer be relevant. Re-evaluate what is important to you, and think about what it will take to make positive changes in the coming year.
New Year’s resolutions are often hastily made and doomed to failure. Instead of meaningless lists of what you will and will not do next year (“I will lose 10 pounds, I will exercise more, yada yada yada), why not do something more meaningful. Take a moment for a quiet celebration of life and light.
Happy solstice! And Merry Christmas!