Tomorrow, December 21, 2020, is the day to celebrate the winter solstice. Where I live in Southern Ontario, the solstice happens precisely at 5:02 am. This is a bit earlier than I usually get out of bed, but I will recognize this day as the start of winter and as a turning point of the year.
This year the solstice also marks the great conjunction between Jupiter and Saturn, something that last occurred 800 years ago. You will need a telescope to view the details of the great conjunction but a close look at the night sky shortly after sunset will allow observers to see the planets close together in the sky.
The winter solstice celebration comes from ancient rituals. It’s interesting that many of the holiday traditions associated with the December holidays can be linked to pagan rituals celebrated by druids, Romans and Celtics. Holiday gifting is associated with the Roman beliefs of bringing luck during the week-long celebration of Saturnalia centuries before Christianity arrived. Candle lighting, singing, and decorating houses were also part of the Saturnalia festivities.
Santa Claus is rooted in European traditions associated with the generosity of Saint Nicholas. The druids hung mistletoe in doorways as a symbol of peace. Outdoor fires, burning a yule log in a fireplace, and lighting candles serve as reminders that light is essential at this dark time.
Start of Winter
I’ve always regarded the solstice as the start of winter. although in the meteorological calendar, December 1 is regarded as the beginning of winter.
I’m hoping for a clear night in Southern Ontario on December 21, as looking at the vast night sky is part of the solstice experience — especially if we won’t see Saturn and Jupiter so close to each other again during our lifetime.
The longest night of the year provides time to reflect on the beast of a year we’ve come through and think about what we plan for 2021. The dark night of the solstice provides a reminder that there is a change in the earth’s tilt signalling the beginning of longer days.
The earth needs a rest during winter but we know that there will be green grass and flowers in the spring. I’ve brought greenery into my house to acknowledge that light is coming as the days gradually grow longer after tomorrow’s solstice. This year, the greenery takes the form of a small arrangement of pine branches that my neighbour at the cottage gifted to me when he had to cut down a large tree to make room on his lot for a new garage.
For many, greenery at this time of year comes in the form of a decorated Christmas tree. We don’t bring a live Christmas tree into the house anymore as these trees are too heavy for us to handle. I have wonderful childhood memories of decorating a freshly cut tree on Dec 21 to celebrate Christmas. In the farmhouse where I was born, it was decorated with real candles that were set alight on Christmas Eve. A large pail of water was kept nearby but I remember only the beauty of the candles; I don’t remember needing to douse the tree.
Turning Point of the Year
Many cultures celebrate the solstice as a turning point of the year. I like to think of the darkness of winter as a time of rest and renewal — a time to prepare for a new start in the new year.
For many of us, 2020 was a ‘dark’ and a difficult year filled with unanticipated changes. It seems appropriate to have a marker like a Solstice to contemplate intentions for the new year.
Some ancient traditions suggest using a yule log or an altar of candles to celebrate the eventual return of the sun. I can’t burn a yule log at our house as both fireplaces use natural gas. But I can, and will, light colourful candles as reminders that light will soon return.
As I admire the candles I will think about the importance of light in my life — especially sunlight. I’ll also walk through the forest paths of the conservation area behind our house, listen to the power of the river, observe the strength of the trees, and say a quiet blessing to our mother earth for the replenishment of each season of the year.