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.

 

Lost Words of the Season

This is a topic that I am more likely to write about on my word origins blog: words of the winter season that seem to have gotten lost over the years. An article on the quite wonderful mentalfloss.com website calls a group of words “obsolete Christmas words,” but I think most of them are more winter season words. Because they are English (Modern, Middle or Old) and German, they tend to be associated with the Yule or Christmas season.

I probably won’t be drinking wassail this month. That is a beverage of hot mulled cider, drunk traditionally as an integral part of wassailing, which was a Medieval Christmastide English drinking ritual intended to ensure a good cider apple harvest the following year. (I may very well down a few hard ciders though, so hopefully that will please the apple gods.) Wassail probably comes from a Germanic phrase meaning “good health” and was a greeting.

One word that is totally new to me comes from Latin. You can say that it looks ninguid outside when the landscape is snow-covered.

You all know that to hibernate means sleeping throughout the entire winter. It is something animals do – not people, though some of us seem to hibernate. But some of you probably do hiemate (which my spellcheck is not happy with) which means to spend winter somewhere.

Actually, searching online for hiernate turned up nothing, so I kind of wonder about the validity of these words. Are they so lost that even Google can’t find them? For example, doesn’t the term “yule-hole” seem fake or very modern? It supposedly means the hole you need to move your belt to after you’ve eaten a massive meal. And yet, going back to the 1500s, the terms belly-cheer or belly-timber was used for fine food and somewhat gluttonous eating that may occur in winter and around holiday celebrations from Thanksgiving through New Year’s and into those stay-at-home days of February too.

If you give a tip when you’re at the bar for your drinks, that can be called a pourboire. The word comes from French and literally means “for drink.”

Many of us give or get gift cards and money as a gift. To distinguish a thing that is a gift (or present) from one that is money given in lieu of the traditional gift, the term “present-silver” has been around since the 1500s.

Another word that is brand new to me but old is xenium. It sounds like a new drug or tech company, but it means a gift that is given to a houseguest, or a gift given by a guest to their host.

Do you know nog, a word that comes from ancient English ales but still shows up in words we use during the season, such as eggnog.

While you are celebrating, keep in mind “apolausticism,” a long-lost 19th-century word derived from Greek meaning “to enjoy,” that describes the total devotion to enjoying yourself.

And after you totally enjoy yourself, a word that looks and sounds just right is crapulence. The OED tells us that this 18th-century word describes “sickness or indisposition resulting from excess in drinking or eating.”

Concerning the Yuletide

log-fireplace-pixa

I see that the Yule Log at Douglass College celebrates its 100th anniversary tomorrow.  This is a non-sectarian event, but this marking of the advent of winter falls on the first Sunday of the Christian Advent and the first night of Hanukkah. The Douglass College event embraces the diversity of seasonal celebrations with candles, which play a role in many observations during this time.

I attended the Yule Log celebration there my freshman year at neighboring Rutgers College and sang songs, and listened to students reading passages about the winter season.

Yule or Yuletide (“Yule time”) is a festival historically observed by Germanic peoples. It went through some remixes and later was, as many other pagan holidays, Christianised as Christmastide.

As a child, my family incorporated some of our the Austro-Hungarian traditions of our ancestors. We considered Yuletide to be a 12-day celebration (as with the more modern Twelve Days of Christmas).

“Officially” Yule 2018 will begin on the Winter Solstice on December 21 (at 5:23 PM ET for the Northern Hemisphere if you want to be Druid precise) and it will end on January 1, 2019. So, today’s post is early, but it gives you lots of time to prepare.

The most common present day custom is probably the Yule log, but there are also a Yule goat, Yule boar, Yule singing and other pagan Yule symbols.

Much earlier references to Yule are made in the Germanic month names Ærra Jéola (Before Yule) or Jiuli and Æftera Jéola (After Yule).

We also associate this time with the celebration to the Wild Hunt, the god Odin and the pagan Anglo-Saxon Mōdraniht. But you can mark the Yuletide and the winter season inside and outside your home with a variety of traditions.

I forgot this year when the first snow fell, to collect some of it for snow water – a kind of Pagan “holy” water.

I know that some people leave out birdseed ornaments and halved oranges as winter offerings to attract and aid the birds who remain for winter.

wassail

If you make some wassail, you can gather friends and go wassailing and after the sun has gone down, Sure, go ahead and burn a yule log in a bonfire, if you can.

Inside, you can make stovetop potpourri as an alternative to incense.

As the winter solstice comes upon us, get out the tarot cards and do a spread for you and your friends and see what is to come.

Hang mistletoe for protection, and also for consensual kisses. In the Christian era, mistletoe in the Western world became associated with Christmas as a decoration under which lovers are expected to kiss. It had also been considered protection from witches and demons. Mistletoe continued to be associated with fertility and vitality through the Middle Ages, and by the 18th century it had also become incorporated into Christmas celebrations around the world.

st-lucia-saffron-buns-vertical

In a cultural sense, I would be quite happy if someone decided to make me some Swedish Lussekatter rolls, or a loaf of cardamom-scented, studded with raisins and candied citron Norwegian Julekake bread. The smell of any baking in the house in winter always warms me and feels like the holiday season.

You can have a ritual bath with fresh orange slices and winter spices, such as frankincense and myrrh, or essential oils which is supposed to ensure future prosperity.

On a Winter Solstice or Yule altar you might find colors like reds, greens, whites, and metallic colors, but some holly, pine, ivy, mistletoe, juniper, or cedar greenery. The harvest can be represented by oranges, pears, nuts and berries.  Snowflake obsidian, clear quartz, or bloodstone may be found there too.

Neopaganism – and holiday rituals – can vary widely and also share similarities, having come from similar origins. Some may try to celebrate in a way as close as possible to how they believe Ancient Germanic pagans observed the tradition. Neopagan sects may celebrate Yule with a special meal and gift giving.

No matter how you treat this time of year, there are probably some roots back to the original Yuletide.

yule-16

The Morning of the Long Night Moon

cloud animated moon
Tonight, December 6th, is the Full Moon for this month. But the Moon became “full” just now at 7:27 am ET even though very few people think about the Moon in the morning and will only observe it as “full” tonight. Well, actually a lot of people looked at the Moon last night or will see it tomorrow and say it looks full.

The December full moon is generally referred to as Cold Moon, Moon Before Yule and Long Night Moon or Moon of Long Nights, Oak Moon (Medieval English), Snow Moon, Moon of the Popping Trees, Her Winter Houses Moon, Big Freezing Moon, Frost Moon, Twelfth Moon (Dakota Sioux), Christmas Moon (Colonial America), Wintermonat (Winter Month), Bitter Moon (China), Heilagmonoth (Holy Month), Dreaming Moon and Big Winter Moon.

The American Indian names for the Full Moons are the most interesting. The Hopi call this kyaamuya, Moon of Respect   I like the name used by the Wishram Indians of the Columbia River area of Washington and Oregon for this moon: Her Winter Houses Moon. I don’t know what it means, but I like it. The Zuni of New Mexico call this ik’ohbu yachunne which translates as Sun Has Traveled Home to Rest.

I realized recently that my interest in the Full Moons probably started by reading copies of The Old Farmer’s Almanac that my mom would buy.

The Old Farmer’s Almanac for 2015 is available for sale and I don’t know if it is considered so old-fashioned that no one reads it anymore.

My mom always bought a copy and I would devour its odd facts and weather lore and Full Moon stories and predictions. I’m sure it was one of the bigger influences on me as a kid that has stayed with me into old age.

What kid (or adult?) could resist America’s oldest continuously published periodical which is now in its 223rd year? They still claim to have 80 percent-accurate weather forecasts, but also stories about creatures from hell, readers’ wacky coincidences, how to make sausages at home, how wildfires’ affect our weather, love potions (yes, I mixed a few of those in my day), stats on things like what are the odds of almost everything, plus the sky and nature things I love to write about here like Moon phases, celestial sightings, tides, and gardening tables.  It was something my mom used as one of my stocking-stuffers and it still works in that way..

This Moon of Long Nights is a marker of that time when winter cold had a pretty solid hold on much of our country, although this year the moon comes early. The nights are literally longer. That’s something that people have observed for thousands of years before they understood the reason it occurred.  The long, dark night increases as we move towards the solstice because the Moon is above the horizon for a long time it has a high trajectory across the sky opposite a low Sun.

I enjoyed reading my sons books about the Moon and about science told simply. We liked When The Moon Is Full which had a cover very appropriate to this month’s Long Night Moon. It tells with colored woodcuts and poems about all twelve full moons of the year with the traditional Native American names, from the Wolf Moon to the Long Night Moon. It has a question-and-answer section with information about the moon’s surface, lunar eclipses and the true meaning of a blue moon.

The Moon, stars and planets fascinate young children, but unfortunately many of them lose that sense of wonder when gazing up at the night sky when they get older.

Of course, the same thing happens with nature and animals and the science of dinosaurs and simple chemistry and even that early fascination with numbers. These are all things to nurture in children, and the Full Moons are great opportunities to connect to that awe and wonder.

In December 2010, the Winter Solstice was also the Full Moon. That is an interesting astronomical calendar coincidence (though not unique). In 2009, the full moon arrived on December 31 to end the year, and it was also the second full moon of the month which some people erroneously but popularly call a “Blue Moon.”

This year’s full moon seems too early to be called the Moon Before Yule. Although “Yule” is equated with Christmas now, Yuletide was a pre-Christian winter solstice festival that lasted for 12 days. (Yule +‎ -tide, “period around a holiday” from the Old English tīd, “time”).  In Scandinavia, winter solstice fires were lit to symbolize the heat, light and life-giving properties of the returning sun. A Yule or Juul log was brought in and burned on the hearth in honor of the Scandinavian god Thor. A piece of the log was kept as both a token of good luck and as kindling for the following year’s log.

In England, Germany, France and other European countries, the Yule log was burned until nothing but ash remained. The ashes were then collected and either strewn on the fields as fertilizer every night until Twelfth Night or kept as a charm and or as medicine.

moon surface
from the book  Full Moon’