Forget Star Wars; may the Yule be with you. People have been marking the winter solstice throughout history, the Romans with the revelry of Saturnalia, the early Scandinavians with the Feast of Yule.
I love the different and strange ways humans have of marking the fact that, once a year in the northern hemisphere, the sun reaches its most southernmost point. At this, the ‘high noon’ of winter, the sun is directly overhead the Tropic of Capricorn. From an earthling’s point of view, the ever-moving source of our planet’s light and heat appears to ‘stand still’ – ‘solstice’ comes from Latin for ‘sun’ and ‘to stand still’ – before continuing on its northward path.
Standing still or taking a pause – this is the astronomical truth behind some of the most vivid lines of our winter songs. The bleak midwinter is a time of darkness when nothing grows, a period that we in the western world translate into the Christmas holidays, a time when all normal activities cease.
But, but … the apparent stasis masks the sense that this is the moment, if one can be identified, that everything, in seasonal terms, changes. ‘In a poetic sense it is on this, the longest night of the winter, “the dark night of our souls”, that there springs the new spark of hope, the Sacred Fire, the Light of the World, the Coel Coeth,’ is how the website The White Goddess characterises the shift into the warm half of the year.
One strand of the Druidic tradition names midwinter ‘Alban Arthuan’, the Welsh for the ‘Light of Arthur’, part of a myth in which Arthur – the personifcation of the Sun – dies and is reborn, just as the mythical king sleeps inside a mountain, to awake when his people needs him.
A birth which will save us? I won’t point out the obvious.
Some cultures have seen the change in more Manichean terms. As Waverley Fitzgerald points out, the ancient Babylonians saw the twelve days beginning on the winter solstice as a time of struggle, in which chaos vied with order. And indeed many midwinter celebrations, from Saturnalia to Twelfth Night, give expression to this sense of chaos by enacting reversal and misrule: masters serve slaves, the humble reign for a day.
Personally, I feel the winter solstice is about both stillness and change. The year, in a real sense, is on the turn. But in order to appreciate that, you need to take the time to slow down and sniff the air.
The winter solstice – which takes place a bit before five am on Tuesday 22nd in southern England if you’re interested in precision – shouldn’t be consumed with shopping. Burn a log, enjoy a story, and notice your long, noontime shadow.