Welcome to the best day of the year:
WINTER SOLSTICE or YULE!
Love this day because it means quite simply that… We made it! Starting tomorrow we are seconds closer to longer days and the light. (Be sure to check out our 4th week of RATK tomorrow as well.) But before we get into how we celebrate the darkest day of the year, here is a bit of information for those of you who may not be aware of the history of Winter Solstice and Yule, and how its related to modern day Christmas traditions.
The word ‘solstice’ comes from two Latin words: sol which means SUN and sistere means “to stand still.” To the ancients standing on Earth and looking up at the sky, it appeared that the sun stood still at this time of year. This is longest night of the year in the Northern Hemisphere and is celebrated for the renewal of the sun – which is promised.
Yule, pronounced EWE-elle, is when the darkness of this part of the year finally recedes and gives way to the light. Literally, the very next morning at sunrise we are seconds closer to longer days. It’s a rebirth, and also gorgeous reminder that we are all connected to a larger network, nature, renewal and the cycle of change.
Some ancient customs and rituals around Yule/Winter Solstice include:
Ancient Ireland: Celts celebrated Meán Geimhridh during the Winter Solstice each day from Dec 19 -23rd by creating a sacred room or hallway at proper angles to catch the light.
Slavic countries (Russia, Bulgaria, and Ukraine etc): Believed in evil spirits and that they were at their apex on the shortest, darkest day of the year. “Darkness and the Black God defeated the sun on the Winter Solstice, after which a New Sun was born. The Old Sun, named Hors, was commemorated with a ritual dance.”
Asia: Chinese and other East Asians celebrate the Winter Solstice as well with the Donghi Festival – a time for rejoicing at the longer light hours to come, symbolizing an increase in positive energy (chi).
Nordic countries: Celebrates with a Yule Goat also known as Julbok. Thankfully, it isn’t a real animal and is typically made of straw. Its origins are rooted in mythology, but still adopted as part of modern Christian tradition. Most Christmas traditions are rooted deep in ancient Yule rituals, many coming from the Vikings. “Even the Christmas tree goes back to pre-Christian times. The Vikings decorated evergreen trees with pieces of food and clothes, small statues of the Gods, carved runes, etc., to entice the tree spirits to come back in the spring.”
Ancient Romans: The Saturnalia was the most popular holiday of the Roman year, was designated a holy day, or holiday, on which religious rites were performed, and described as one of “the best of days” (Poems, XIV). A time when a “whole mob has let itself go in pleasures” (Epistles, XVIII.3). It was an occasion for celebration, visits to friends, and the presentation of gifts, particularly wax candles (cerei), perhaps to signify the returning light after the solstice, and sigillaria.
England: We can’t talk about Winter Solstice without mentioning one of the most famous celebrations on the planet which takes place at Stonehenge. The ancient ruins of the Druids and Pagans who would gather there to chant, dance and sing through the night waiting for the sun to rise through the monolithic stones. Many people still travel there today to experience and take part in this magical tradition.
Germany: Evidently it was devout Christians from 16th century Germans who get all the credit for starting the tradition of having a decorated Christmas tree brought into their homes. Some say it was Martin Luther, who added lighted candles to a tree because he was in awe of the bright light from the stars above twinkling amidst evergreens. He wanted to recreate what he saw, so he put up tree in this main living area with lighted candles attached to branches by wires.
According to history.com:
“The pilgrims, English separatists that came to America in 1620, were even more orthodox in their Puritan beliefs than Cromwell. As a result, Christmas was not a holiday in early America. From 1659 to 1681, the celebration of Christmas was actually outlawed in Boston. Anyone exhibiting the Christmas spirit was fined five shillings.
Most 19th-century Americans found Christmas trees an oddity. The first record of one being on display was in the 1830s by the German settlers of Pennsylvania, although trees had been a tradition in many German homes much earlier. The Pennsylvania German settlements had community trees as early as 1747. But, as late as the 1840s Christmas trees were seen as pagan symbols and not accepted by most Americans. [And] After the American Revolution, English customs fell out of favor, including Christmas. In fact, Christmas wasn’t declared a federal holiday until June 26, 1870.
It wasn’t until the 19th century that Americans began to embrace Christmas. Americans re-invented Christmas, and changed it from a raucous carnival holiday into a family-centered day of peace and nostalgia. Also around this time, English author Charles Dickens created the classic holiday tale, A Christmas Carol. The story’s message-the importance of charity and good will towards all humankind-struck a powerful chord in the United States and England and showed members of Victorian society the benefits of celebrating the holiday. The family was also becoming less disciplined and more sensitive to the emotional needs of children during the early 1800s. Christmas provided families with a day when they could lavish attention-and gifts-on their children without appearing to “spoil” them.
As Americans began to embrace Christmas as a perfect family holiday, old customs were unearthed. People looked toward recent immigrants and Catholic and Episcopalian churches to see how the day should be celebrated. In the next 100 years, Americans built a Christmas tradition all their own that included pieces of many other customs, including decorating trees, sending holiday cards, and gift-giving.”
It’s widely known that the early years of Christianity designated Easter as the main holiday and the birth of Jesus wasn’t celebrated at all. It wasn’t until around the 4th century that Pope Julius I decided to create a holiday for his birth and chose December 25. It was called the Feast of the Nativity, and that custom made its way and spread to Egypt in 432, on to England by the 6th century and all the way to Scandinavia by the 8th century.
Fascinating to learn how these ancient rituals influenced modern day Winter Solstice, Yule and Christmas and that we are left with one thing that connects them all: food and drink. Sharing food is particularly meaningful during solstice as it represents faith in the return of the sun and the harvest. It’s also the a beloved part of the Christmas tradition.
Cookies and caraway cakes soaked in cider, fruits, nuts, pork dishes, turkey, eggnog, ginger tea, spiced cider, wassail, or lamb’s wool (ale, sugar, nutmeg, roasted apples) are a few of the foods associated with Yule. With the prevailing constant being some version of mulled wine. Natural Living listed some traditional beverages for Winter Solstice, Yule Christmas and even New Years:
- Gluhwein: This drink originated in German-speaking countries. It is a red wine heated with cinnamon sticks, vanilla pods, cloves, citrus and sugar. Romainians call it vin fiert, in Moldova it is izvar, Italy it is vin brule, and in Latvia it is karstvins.
- Glogg: This drink originated in the Nordic countries and was also called glug. It is red wine mixed with cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, cloves, bitter orange and sugar and sometimes with vodka, akvavit or brandy. It is usually served with raisins, blanched almonds and gingerbread.
- Navegado: This is a mulled wine from Chile. It is heated with cinnamon sticks, orange slices, cloves, sugar with raisins and almonds added.
- Wassail: This drink is a mulled cider from Germanic countries. The word wassail comes from waes haeil, which means “be healthy”. The historical wassail drinks were more of a mulled beer or mead. They made it by mixing sugar, ale, nutmeg and cinnamon in a bowl which was then heated. They topped it with slices of toast which they called sops. The wassail bowl looked like a goblet and was made out of wood. Later the drink became associated with apples and the song was sung around the apple tree for the next year’s harvest. A-wassailing was going door to door, singing and asking (demanding?) the drink from the household, usually the rich in the town.
- Hypocras: Another mulled wine heated with spices such as cinnamon, ginger, grains of paradise and long pepper. This drink was named after Hippocrates. Hypocras became more popular after the crusades until its popularity waned during the 18th century.
- Eggnog: This drink was developed backed in the 1700’s in Europe. It was mixed with eggs and warm milk and served in a wooden mug called a noggin. Traditionally it was mixed with Sherry or Brandy. George Washington loved eggnog and he crafted his own recipes!
So today Dec 21, 2017 at 11:28am, we welcome Winter Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere – the darkest day of the year. Though it made be the official start of Winter, it’s also the end of darkness and the dawn of light! How can that be bad?
For those of you interested in connecting with nature today and and preparing for the closure of the year, there are some rituals you can preform that are simple and easy to do:
• Try to stay away from electronics today. (yikes!)
• Try a meditation at sunrise and sunset. Ideally outside if the weather supports it.
• Smudge yourself and your home to purify, or to clean out negative thoughts. You can light dried rosemary, sage and lavender and walk around your home allowing the smoke to waft and purify the space.
• Leave a gift for nature such as sliced fruit such as sliced apples and seed for the birds, and other creatures.
• Try making and sipping a Winter-Solstice-Yule-Christmas Decoction (Tea):
- 2 tsp black tea (Kenya black)
- 3-4 cups filtered water (depending on desired strength)
- ½ an (organic) apple, peeled
- 2 whole cinnamon sticks (Sri Lankan)
- ½ inch chunk of fresh organic ginger, peeled
- ½ tsp (organic) orange zest
- Optional: cloves or star anise or caraway seeds
- A few (organic) raisins
- Local honey if sweetness is desired
Place all ingredients into a pot and simmer slowly for about 8-10 minutes. Turn off the heat and allow to cool for another 10 minutes or so. Strain into a cup or mug. Add a few raisins and honey if desired. If you prefer to make this into a Glogg, spike it with dash of brandy then sip by candlelight, relax and direct your thoughts to gratitude for having a roof over your head, people to love, for being loved, and for knowing that the darkness is over and tomorrow we are given the gift of more light.
~ The Chief Leaf