Celebrating the Solstice and Endless Summer

poster

As a year ends, we often look back on what we have experienced. That review may bring to mind what we have accomplished and good memories. It may include regrets, things undone, and things we wish we could forget.

In this month’s writing prompt at my Poets Online e-zine, I noted an old poem (1784), “New Year’s Verses” by Philip Freneau, in which he blesses the calendar maker who came up with the idea of a year.

Blest be the man who early prov’d
And first contriv’d to make it clear
That Time upon a dial mov’d,
And trac’d that circle call’d a year;

Do you bless or curse the coming of winter?

December is filled with holidays that mark the Winter Solstice and the end of the year. That solstice is the first day of winter in the Northern Hemisphere and the shortest day of the year. But you only have to move south of the equator for it to be the start of spring. and winter won’t arrive there until June.

In my brief youthful surfer days, the film The Endless Summer was a cult classic documentary. In 1966, I had that day-glo poster on the wall at the foot of my bed and stared at it every day. The surfers in the film were in search of the “perfect wave” but what interested me more is that their travels showed that you could follow summer around the globe. It could always be summer if you moved from hemisphere to hemisphere.

That was a few years after I had figured out the chords to The Beatles’ “I’ll Follow the Sun” which in my mind was saying the same thing. I didn’t keep surfing and never really progressed very far on the guitar and never did get to follow the Sun. I suppose it became more of a metaphor than a reality. Follow your bliss. Head for the positive.

Though some of us in the North might be sad to see summer and autumn ending and winter starting since ancient times astronomical winter and the solstice was a joyous celebration. After the solstice, the days get longer building daylight hours until the vernal equinox and the start of spring.

Societies globally have held festivals and ceremonies marking winter solstice which was seen as the day of the Sun’s rebirth. Symbolically, fire or light is often a component. Other symbols include things representing life and death, the rising Sun, and the Moon.

A good example is Yule which was a celebration of the ancient Norsemen of Scandinavia and it ran from the solstice through January. You might know about Large Yule logs which were set on fire at one end.  More modern and tamer versions have taper candles inserted into a smaller log and decorated with evergreen clippings, holly, mistletoe, or ivy.

log burning

Bonfires also figure into many ceremonies in order to encourage the sun’s return. There is a large fire traditionally burning on Mount Fuji each year.

Hanukkah is another happy celebration that features light via the fire of candles or oil lamps.

In the Hopi tradition of Soyal, the Sun Chief takes on the role of announcing the setting of the sun, after which an all-night ceremony begins with the kindling of fires and dancing.

The Winter Solstice arrives on the 21st mid-afternoon here in Paradelle.  If that isn’t appealing, head south and enjoy summer’s arrival.

The winter solstice (also called the hiemal solstice or hibernal solstice) occurs when either of Earth’s poles reaches its maximum tilt away from the Sun. This happens twice yearly, once in each hemisphere. For that hemisphere, the winter solstice is the day with the shortest period of daylight and longest night of the year, when the Sun is at its lowest daily maximum elevation in the sky. If you are at the North Pole on the 21st, you’ll experience continuous darkness or twilight.

I don’t love winter, but I have lived with it all my life. The four seasons are strong reminders of cycles – birth, maturity, aging, death, rebirth. There is something about losing summer that makes its return all the more miraculous to me.

Solstice Fires

sunrise
Winter solstice 2020 in the Northern Hemisphere will be at 5:02 AM (10:02 UTC) on Monday, December 21.
What can I say about solstices or the winter solstice specifically that I haven’t said in years past?
You’ve probably seen photos of neo-Pagans celebrating at Stonehenge or elsewhere with the solstice sunrise. That’s a kind of fire, and other celebrations often involve a fire. A nice fire in winter certainly makes sense.
Of course, tomorrow will the summer solstice for those lucky people on the bottom half of the planet. No fires required, though you can still have one to look at while you sip a drink or to put under those shrimp when you slip them on the barbie.

Solstice is from the Latin solstitium, from sol (sun) and stitium (to stop) because those ancient observers believed that the Sun stopped and headed in another direction to start the winter solstitium.

It occurs in our calendar near the end of the year, but in ancient Egypt, this solstice marked the start of the new year. They observed the rising of the star Sirius which happen around this time. It coincided with the annual flooding of the Nile River which was important to agriculture.

According to Wikipedia, there are other celebrations on the winter solstice.

Kračun costumes
Korochun, Koliada, Koročun Kolyiadki, Kračun – there are several names for the Slavic pagan winter solstice holiday. The costumes are quite colorful.

Maybe I’ll write about those celebrations in the years to come. One celebration that I feel a bit of an ancestral connection to is the Slavic Korochun. Its origin doesn’t seem to be clear, but modern scholars tend to associate this holiday with ancestor worship. The winter solstice was a day to make fires at cemeteries to keep their loved ones warm. They would hold feasts to honor the dead and keep them fed. They also lit wooden logs at local crossroads. (Crossroads figure in folk magic and mythology – see this earlier post.)

I think setting a fire in a cemetery or burning logs at my local crossroads would be seriously frowned upon by the authorities.  Perhaps, just a Viking toast to the solstice tomorrow night?

Make a Viking Toast for the Winter Solstice

There will be about 9 hours and 20 minutes of daylight today in Paradelle. It’s partly sunny but below freezing outside. Some people mark the Winter Solstice with celebration. Optimists, like the ancients, didn’t think of today as the longest night of the year as much as it as the turning point after which nights would become increasingly shorter. Those in the northernmost parts of the Northern Hemisphere were really looking forward to more daylight and shorter nights.

From what I have read, a Viking toast includes a boast – something you are proud of from the past year – a toast – to someone you want to honor – and an oath for the year ahead.  If you’re gathering with a group to do some solstice celebrating, you work your way around the room and each person makes a toast/boast/oath and takes a sip (or whatever amount is appropriate to the celebrants and the number in the room).

Keep in mind that in Norway, the sun on the Winter Solstice may only be up only a few hours. That must have been quite frightening to the ancients who had no idea that Earth was on a tilted axis and that’s why this happens. They believed that a wolf of Hel, the goddess of death, was eating the sun who was a maiden and the beloved of all gods.

What should we drink with our Viking toast? Here are 5 options:

alehornThe Germanic wassail which is a mulled cifer (or mulled beer or mead) has nutmeg, cinnamon, and sugar. I like this choice because it is warmed and served with toast.

Go Nordic with some glogg which you can make with red wine and spices like cinnamon, ginger, cloves, cardamom, and orange. It is sometimes boosted a bit with some vodka or brandy.

Eggnog isn’t authentic Viking fare but very Yuletide in tradition.  If you drink it from a horn it will look more Viking. Brandy is the traditional alcoholic component.

If you can find some mead, that’s appropriate. Don’t overdo it but I’ve been known to add some cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and vanilla. Heat it up till it’s like a cup of warm tea.

I have no objection to some nice hot toddies tonight. My late Aunt Millie would approve – but those ancient Vikings would probably beat me up if I served it to them.

The Norse holiday season doesn’t end until Jólablót , or Yule Sacrifice, in January – but that’s a post for another day.

MORE Drinks for a Cold Holiday

 

 

This Longest Night of the Year

LHS sunstones.jpg The winter solstice viewed at the Lawrence Hall of Science in Berkeley, California, USA.By Tim Ereneta from Berkeley, CA – solstice gathering, CC BY-SA 2.0, Link

Winter solstice is an astronomical phenomenon that marks the shortest day and the longest night of the year. This is the December solstice in the Northern Hemisphere and the June solstice in the Southern Hemisphere. This year the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere will be at 11:19 PM ET today, Saturday, December 21.

The winter solstice is also known as the hiemal solstice or hibernal solstice,  Midwinter, Yule, the Longest Night and Jólo.

We get a solstice when one of the Earth’s poles has its maximum tilt away from the Sun. That happens twice yearly. For me, this is the shortest period of daylight and longest night of the year, but if I was at the North Pole, there is continuous darkness or twilight around the winter solstice. (It’s the opposite for the summer solstice.)

Why would anyone think of the solstice as “Midwinter” when it seems to be the start of winter? If you want to optimistic, after the winter solstice the days get longer and the nights shorter. But I have to admit that in Paradelle I think of mid-January as midwinter.

The December solstice is usually the 21st or 22nd of December. As with Full Moons, a solstice really lasts only a moment, but we popularly refer to the entire day as the Winter Solstice.

In prehistory, the solstices were observed carefully and were much more significant cultural events. There were festivals and rituals and superstitions and beliefs around this occurrence. It was seen by some as the symbolic death and rebirth of the Sun.

The late Neolithic and Bronze Age sites at Stonehenge in England and Newgrange in Ireland are still the site of ceremonies. The primary axes of both of these monuments seem to have been carefully aligned on a sight-line pointing to the winter solstice sunrise (Newgrange) and the winter solstice sunset (Stonehenge).

The pagan Scandinavian and Germanic people of northern Europe celebrated a twelve-day “midwinter” holiday called Yule ( Jul, Julblot, jólablót, midvinterblot, julofferfest). This holiday gave us many of the modern Christmas traditions, such as the Christmas tree, the Christmas wreath, the Yule log.  Scandinavians still call Christmas “Jul” and in English “Yule” is often connected to the “yuletide” season which has been in usage since 900.

In “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost, the setting of the poem is a woods on the Winter Solstice.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

Like the driver in those woods, it is good to stop a moment today and consider the solstice and nature’s beauty around us – but then, though “The woods are lovely, dark and deep,” we all have our
promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

 

Solstice Fireballs

Ursa Major
Ursa Major – the Great Bear – and the Big Dipper where the Ursid meteor shower seems to originate.

As is often the case here in December, viewing conditions for watching meteor showers recently for the Geminids were lousy – clouds and rain. There’s another chance this week for a smaller event.

The annual Ursid meteor shower was visible to some starting earlier this week (clouds and rain for me again) but it typically peaks around the Winter Solstice. The Ursids are not as impressive a show as the Geminids, but I’ve missed seeing almost any meteors all year so I’m hungry to catch at least a few this time. And with my sons and daughters-in-law visiting for the holidays, I will probably push them outside on a clear night to watch for a fireball.

The Ursid meteor shower runs from about December 17 to 26 each year. I associate it with the Winter Solstice and Christmas so it does have a kind of special place in my celestial calendar.

waning crescent moonThe Moon will be in its waning crescent phase this weekend which will make the sky much darker than it was for the Geminids. On Christmas Day there will be a dark as possible New Moon.

The Ursids may show 5-10 meteors per hour in a dark sky with a rare burst of more (near 100) in some years.

The Ursids get there name from where they appear to originate. Look to the Big and Little Dipper asterisms which are in the constellations Ursa Major and Ursa Minor.

Ursa Major, the Great Bear, is a constellation in the northern sky. The Latin name means “greater (or larger) she-bear” to contrast it with the nearby Ursa Minor, the lesser bear. It was one of the original 48 constellations listed by Ptolemy in the 2nd century AD.  Ursa Major is well known for the asterism of its main seven stars, which we call the Big Dipper which resembles the Little Dipper in Ursa Minor. The bears’ tails are the handle of the dipper cups.

Ursa Minor may be smaller but it contains Polaris, better known as commonly the North Star or Pole Star, which is the brightest star in this constellation.

For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere this weekend, the Big Dipper is pretty far up in the north-northeast sky by midnight. From midnight into early morning is a good time to watch. I think I’ll make some nice late-night hot toddies tomorrow night to lure the kids outside.

Old Man Winter Arrives

The winter solstice has historically been more than just the day that winter officially begins. It has been a religious event throughout history. This was particularly true in places where climates meant there were dramatically different seasons.

I have written here over the years about the solstices and there is only so much I can say about the technical aspects of this celestial event.

Solstice derives from Latin sol (sun) and sistere (to stand still) because the Sun did seem to pause on that day and then move another way. The days lengthen after this and, after the longest night, the nights shorten.

The winter solstice occurs between December 21 and 22 each year in the northern hemisphere. (In the southern hemisphere, their winter solstice will be between June 20 and 21.)

This is called the shortest day or the longest night of the year. This is the day when there is no sunlight at the North Pole.

The ancients associated seasons with deities. The ancient Greek god of winter is Boreas. The Norse god of winter is Ullr. In Celtic mythology, there is the god Cailleach and goddess Beira. Since winter could be a brutal and killing season in some places, appeasing the god of winter made sense.

As mythologies gave way to religions with one God, the old gods of winter changed to new personifications of the seasons. These characters, like Old man Winter, were someone to blame for your hardships, and someone to please so that spring would return.

Russia’s Father Frost is very similar to Old Man Winter and In Russian folklore, the character is known as Morozko.

Old Man Winter is a personification of winter that comes from ancient Greek mythology and Old World pagan beliefs that became a modern character in literature and popular culture.

Uncredited illustration of Old Man Winter, used for “Winter” in Child Life: A Collection of Poems, edited by John Greenleaf Whittier,

Ancient mythologies had gods for meteorological forces (thunder, lightning), each direction of the wind, and the seasons.

In the Greek myths, the goddess of the harvest, Demeter, had her daughter Persephone kidnapped by Hades, lord of the underworld. It so depressed her , she became so despondent that she could not care for the lands, and winter took over. After a deal was struck with Hades, Persephone was allowed to return to the Earth for six months of the year at which time the lands thrived, but every six months she would return to the underworld and the seasons would change again.

Each direction of wind was considered a god. Boreas was the Greek god of the north wind and was shown in artwork as an old man who brought winter. In some Celtic traditions, the Oak King is considered a deity of the winter solstice. But he was also seen as a life force. The Oak King battled the Holly King who ruled from the start of summer. The Oak King’s reigned during the darkest time of the year, like the solstice, his coming was hopeful because it marked the gradual lengthening of the days and progression towards spring.

For the Norse mythologies, Ullr was the god of winter and son of a frost giant. When Odin was gone in winter, he ruled Asgard.

There are many holidays that were part of European culture and were able to be preserved within religious beliefs. Father Winter survived as Santa Claus. Evergreen tree worship survives in the Christmas tree tradition. There are still Christmas-time customs that are non-Christian.

Father Winter is an ancient Pagan figure who gave gifts of fruit, plants, and herbs. He wore a cape and delivered his gifts on a white horse.

Winter probably seemed to arrive about a month ago if you live in a northern climate like Paradelle. But now it’s official. If you get the winter blues, perhaps you should think of the winter solstice as it was once viewed – as the turning of the Sun, the lengthening of the days, and the first step on the celestial path to spring. Enjoy the journey.