The winter solstice, or ‘hibernal’ solstice is celebrated in the northern hemisphere in 2022 on 21 December.
This is a time when the North Pole reaches its maximum ‘tilt’ away from the Sun and as a result those living in the Northern Hemisphere experience the shortest day and conversely the longest night of the year.
The word ‘solstice’ means ‘the standing still of the sun’. Another term for solstice is ‘midwinter’ as in many temperate regions the winter solstice is viewed as the middle of winter. Other countries and calendars regard the solstice as the starting point for winter.
For aeons, this time of the year has been celebrated by many festivals and rituals as it marks the symbolic death and rebirth of the Sun.
The great Russian esotericist, H P Blavatsky, writes the following on the significance of the winter solstice.
“Christmas comes just at the time of the winter solstice; the days then are shortest, and Darkness is more upon the face of the earth than ever. All the sun-gods were believed to be annually born at that epoch; for from this time its Light dispels more and more darkness with each succeeding day, and the power of the Sun begins to increase” (Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Collected Writings vol. II (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, ), 164.)
Blavatsky (pictured right) elaborates on this theme in Collected Writings X, p278-79
“December 25th was the day of the birth of the Sun for those who inhabited the Northern Hemisphere. It is also on December the 25th, Christmas, the day with the Christians on which the “Saviour of the World” was born, that were born, ages before him, the Persian Mithra, the Egyptian Osiris, the Greek Bacchus, the Phoenician Adonis, the Phrygian Attis. And, while at Memphis the people were shown the image of the god Day, taken out of his cradle, the Romans marked December 25th in their calendar as the day natalis solis invicti”
(picture left – 4th century relief of Mithra, courtesy of Wikipedia)
Ancient monuments such as Stonehenge (England), Newgrange (Ireland) and Cahokia Woodhenge (Illinois, USA) are aligned with the sunrise or sunset on the winter solstice.
As long ago as Neolithic times, the solstice has occupied a special place in the annual cycle of some cultures and astronomical events served as guides to such activities as the mating of animals and sowing of crops. As starvation was common in the first months of winter, cattle were often slaughtered at this time to ensure a plentiful supply of fresh meat.
Pagan Scandinavian and Germanic people of northern Europe celebrate a winter holiday called Yule (also called Jul, Julblot, jólablót). The Heimskringla, written in the 13th century by the Icelander Snorri Sturluson, describes a Yule feast hosted by the Norwegian king Haakon the Good (c. 920–961). According to Snorri, the Christian Haakon had moved Yule from “midwinter” and aligned it with the Christian Christmas celebration.
right: Snorri Sturluson, 1890s, courtesy of Wikipedia
Interestingly enough, December 25th is not the date mentioned in the Bible as the day of Jesus’s birth; the Bible is actually silent on the day or the time of year when Mary was said to have given birth to him in Bethlehem.
In Celtic times, Irish Druids observed the Yule festival – known as Alban Arthan, by gathering mistletoe from oak trees, in an attempt to ward off evil spirits and grant them good luck. At the winter solstice, Druids would sit on mounds of earth, throughout the night, waiting for sunrise. This is when they believed they would be reborn.
Three sacred plants associated with Yule are holly, ivy and as mentioned mistletoe. Each plant has a unique magic and lore but collectively the three represent hope of new life in the winter’s darkness.
(left) Vivid red berries of the British holly. photo by Colyn Boyce
Some traditions associate winter with water, which has the same vibration as north or black. The spirits of the snake and the turtle symbolise this direction – one for each kidney. North is also regarded as the place of the past, the mystery, and the ancestors.
In an article, ‘Winter Solstice: Stories and Traditions from Around the World’, written on 9 December 2019, authors Michelle Bierma and Tim Reese relate information about mythical monsters of the winter solstice.
In Finnish mythology, we read of Louhi, the “witch goddess of the North,” who kidnaps the Sun and Moon and holds them prisoner inside a mountain, thus causing the darkness of winter.
The Yupik, indigenous peoples of the Arctic, speak of subterranean monsters with bulbous bodies and frog-like legs, called the Kogukhpak, who can only be killed by the sun. The Kogukhpak emerge at the winter solstice to hunt and as a result later one discovers the mammoth carcasses of the ones who stayed out too long and died when the sun returned.
And then there are the Kallikantzaros of Greek Mythology – angry, hairy, gnome-like creatures living underground and who attempt to cut down the tree of life. As with the Kogukhpak, they emerged during the solstice to wreak havoc on homes and villages and could also be killed only by sunlight.
Indigenous peoples the world over observe the Winter Solstice. Their spiritual foundation lies in the ‘natural world of connection’ and Solstice is a time to honour and acknowledge the natural patterns of our universe and existence.
Bierma and Reese also speak of gods and goddesses worshipped during the winter solstice – Tonatzin in Mexico, Cailleach Bheru in Scotland, Horus in Egypt and Spider Grandmother by the Hopi.
(right) Stone figure of Tonatzin found at the Museo Nacional de las Intervenciones, Mexico City. courtesy of Wikipedia
Winter solstice has also been known to celebrate Earth’s regeneration or rebirth, and the Scandinavian Goddess, Beiwe, is associated with health and fertility. She is believed to travel through the night sky in a carriage made of reindeer bones with her daughter, Beiwe-Neia, to bring back the greenery on which the reindeer fed.
And Italian folklore relates the story of a goddess, La Befana, who during the winter solstice, rides around the globe on a broomstick, leaving candles and gifts to well behaved children.
Originally a Syrian god, Sol Invictus, (“The Unconquered Sun/Invincible Sun”) was later adopted as the chief god of the Roman Empire under Emperor Aurelain.
His holiday is traditionally celebrated on December 25, as are several gods associated with the winter solstice in many pagan traditions. Speculation has it, this is the reason behind the close proximity of Christmas to the winter solstice.
picture above – Roman Imperial repoussé silver disc of Sol Invictus (3rd century), found at Pessinus (British Museum)
In Iran, the winter solstice is celebrated with, “Yalda night” to mark the “longest and darkest night of the year”. Also called “Shabe Chelleh” (“the 40th night”), this is a very old Iranian tradition – present in Persian culture from ancient times. Traditionally all the family gather together, often in the home of the eldest, and celebrate with eating, drinking and reciting poetry (especially those of Hafez). Nuts, pomegranates and watermelons are typically served during this festival.
The Chinese celebrate the winter solstice – known as ‘Dongzhi’ – as one of the Twenty-four Solar Terms. A solar term appears in traditional Chinese lunisolar calendars and matches a particular astronomical event or signifies some natural phenomenon. photo below – Seventeen Arch Bridge at winter solstice sunset in Beijing
Even atheists can get into the holiday ‘spirit’. While some ignore all festivities, other engage in the full family affair. Some folks have started celebrating “Newtonmas,” named in honour of English scientist Isaac Newton, who was born December 25 by the Julian calendar in use in England at the time.
image above – Sir Isaac Newton and his ‘Ray of Light. painting by Godfrey Kneller reproduced in A Pictorial History of Philosophy
Other theosophists have commented on the allegorical and metaphorical importance of the Yule season. The following uplifting piece was written by Gottfried de Purucker (right)
“Now the Winter Solstice is the beginning of the cosmic New Year, and so . . . northern peoples, knowing some of the ancient truths, celebrated the cosmic event with the Christmas Tree. It symbolises the World Tree, and the lights are the suns that bestrew the deeps of Space, hinting to us the message from the divinities who constantly give us the light of love, the light of mind, the light of hope eternal” (Wind of the Spirit. See Theosophical University Press Online)
Main photo: Sunset at Stonehenge, Wiltshire, England at the Winter Solstice. courtesy of Theosophy Wiki
Colyn Boyce is a former radio journalist, from Canada. From 1981 until 2018, he was Publicist for the English Section of the Theosophical Society – for about 25 years he was assistant editor of the house magazine, ‘Insight‘, which he typeset and illustrated. He is a National Lecturer for the TS in England and has spoken on numerous occasions in London and at various other locations throughout the UK, Canada and the USA. During 2021 and 2022 he has spoken for the TS in England, the TS in Ukraine, for the European School of Theosophy and the Philippines Section of the Society.