‘In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.’
ALBERT CAMUS, French-Algerian Nobel Prize-winning author, journalist and philosopher
For those of us in the northern hemisphere, the winter solstice is the shortest day -- and the longest night -- of the year, when the sun’s path has reached its southernmost position. But for millions, Dec. 21 is much more than an astrological event caused by the earth’s tilt on its axis; it’s a time to reflect and a reason to celebrate.
“As we go around the sun, the north pole points toward the sun during one part of its orbit and then away from the sun during the part of its orbit that is six months later,” said April Hendley, lecturer in SIU's physics department. “When the north pole points as far away from the sun as it can get, when the sun appears the lowest in the sky, and when the sun is up in the sky for the shortest amount of time, we have the winter solstice.”
For centuries, humans have observed this seasonal milestone and created traditions to celebrate the rebirth of light after the darkest period of the year. Ancient civilizations built monuments -- Stonehenge and Machu Picchu -- to the sun’s annual path through the sky. Romans honored their god Saturn with the week-long feast of Saturnalia.
On solstice night, the longest night of the year, Pagans celebrate the beginning of the yule season, when the dark half of the year gives way to the light half. The yule log is blessed and burned, bonfires are lit, and crops and trees are “wassailed” with toasts of spiced cider.
“There’s something truly magical about lighting that yule fire and watching as it burns the whole night long, still hot and strong as the first light of dawn breaks over the horizon,” said Tara Nelsen, founder of Southern Illinois Pagan Alliance. “At the winter solstice, I will be celebrating the longest night with the great people of SIPA, my friends and family, my community.
“After a sacred and fun-filled celebration, I will head home and take a few moments to breathe deep the cold, crisp night air as I stand in my backyard staring up at the vastness that makes up the universe, perhaps with a cat winding through my legs. I will go inside to the warmth of the yuletide fire, burning hot and bright in the hearth, and sleep well knowing that the next day is a minute or two longer than the one before it, and that summer is coming. That knowledge will help me push through the many cold and dreary days still to come.”
Traditional Pagan celebrations continue during the solstice day, celebrating the sun’s rebirth by honoring the Oak or Sun King, the giver of life who warms the frozen earth. Apples and oranges, representing the sun, are laid in baskets of evergreen boughs, representing the eternal aspect of the divine.
Early Christian leaders added their own meanings to existing Pagan festivals, celebrating the birth of the newborn son of God, along with the rebirth of the sun. Many ancient yule customs are practiced at Christmastime now -- including yule logs, evergreen boughs and candles -- without any reference to their ancient origins.
“We are surrounded by the symbols of this sacred time of year," Nelsen said. "Evergreen trees decorated with love and laughter remind us that green, living, thriving plants will return with the sun. We tell stories of Santa Claus, who brings us gifts to help hold strong and have fun in the face of many more cold days and nights. We plan and attend many festive parties to gather close and share the bounty of the harvest, knowing that without the harvest and without the connection to family and friends, life would not be as bright or as merry.
“Yule, the celebration of the longest night of the year, is about family, about friends, about connections, and it’s about the chance to turn off the electrical lights, light the yule log ablaze and look deep inside yourself and honor the ‘dark’ parts of yourself. Life can be challenging, as well as amazingly awesome, and it sometimes takes the darkness to be able to see just how bright your life truly is.”