The winter solstice has its roots in many cultures around the world; what remains of a timeless celebration can be found hidden in many different traditions. It has its origins in creation itself and depicts spiritual birth through the winter sunrise, peering through the cold of winter on the shortest day of the year, December 21st or 22nd. On this day, the sun’s light and strength is reborn and begins its journey anew, steadily appearing to draw closer to the Earth with more light and warmth, until its fullness at the summer solstice.
Countless myths, religions, and sacred schools leave clues of how spiritual seekers can revive an ancient way of spirituality where mystics of old paid homage to universal principals found in the movements of the sun and the meaning it had internally for spiritual growth.
Make the winter solstice part of your life!
The Sun & the Winter Solstice
Some say the sun has a story to tell, that its presence in our lives is influential. The sun is our closest star; giver of life to all plants and creatures. Birds celebrate the first rays as it wakes us and moves us into activity and life. Later its descent into the horizon calls upon the evening stars and before we know it, closes our day and thrusts us into a new cycle.
However the journey of the sun carries perhaps an even greater influence than that of night and day… Four breaks in the year interrupt our lives into very distinct visual imagery, transforming the scenery from winter, to spring, summer, and autumn. These four seasons shape the land and harvest through the power of the sun.* Mostly distinct in the Northern hemisphere.
But do these movements of the sun or rather our perception of them point towards something more? According to many ancient cultures they did, as seen by their own sacred grounds aligned to the rising and setting sun of the winter solstice as well as other celestial movements.
Sacred Places Aligned to the Winter Solstice
From the Mayan pyramid of the Feathered Serpent, the Egyptian temple of Karnak, the Glastonbury Tor and Stonehenge in the UK, as well as hundreds of other incredible ancient sites, a strong connection to the winter solstice and the movement of the stars unites them. With unbelievable precision megalithic stones, mounds, and other material used to construct temples, grounds and sacred spaces, all of which have been aligned to the winter solstice giving homage to a cosmic event — the return of the Sun.
The Many Celebrations of the Winter Solstice
Many ancient cultures worshiped the sun, offering homage to sun gods, not to mention several spiritual figures were also born on or around the winter solstice such as Horus from Egypt, Dionysus from Greece, Mithras from Persia, and Jesus from Bethlehem.
Although seemingly lost and forgotten, today many customs of the winter solstice can still be seen. Celebrations of light and fire are ever-present during the time of the winter solstice showing strong parallels of a lost tradition that belonged to old ways of life and spirituality. However looking back at these traditions we can pick up what was left for us to find centuries later, and reawaken the innate appreciation and appeal for the sun.
Explore some of the ways the winter solstice has been celebrated and revive the homage to the sun by creating your own personal solstice appreciation exercise.
Below are some examples.
Winter Solstice Festivities
In Egypt, the Festival of Aset, is celebrated with the lighting of lamps in honor of Horus’ birthday, born on the winter solstice. Also on the winter solstice, a major festival of lights celebrates the rites of Osiris with 365 lamps. Illumination was a great part of Egyptian festivities.
Another mention of the winter solstice celebration is from Macrobius, a Roman historian from the fifth century, known for his book about the Saturnalia.
…at the winter solstice, the sun would seem to be a little childlike that which the Egyptians bring forth from a shrine on the appointed day, since the day is then at its shortest and the god is accordingly shown as a tiny infant. (Macrobius, Saturnalia, 1.18:10)
Epiphanius, a Cypriot Bishop of the 4th century writes of an account of a ceremony which took place in Alexandria of another virgin birth, that of Kore and her divine Son Aion. Below he shares insight to how this birth was celebrated not long after the actual winter solstice. Aion sometimes identified to Osiris, Dionysus, as well as a god emerging from primordial chaos, was celebrated on the 6th of January.
First, at Alexandria, in the Koreum, as they call it; it is a very large temple, the shrine of Kore. They stay up all night singing hymns to the idol with a flute accompaniment. And when they have concluded their nightlong vigil, torchbearers descend into an underground shrine after cockcrow and bring up a wooden image which is seated naked on a litter. It has a sign of the cross inlaid with gold on its forehead, two other such signs, one on each hand and two other signs, one actually on each of its two knees—altogether five signs with a gold impress. And they carry the image itself seven times around the innermost shrine with flutes, tambourines and hymns, hold a feast, and take it back down to its place underground. And when you ask them what this mystery means, they reply that today, at this hour Kore—that is, the Virgin—gave birth to Aion.
(Epiphanius, Panarion, 22,9)
Many other traditions continue today leaving traces of celebrations that show parallels to events on or around the winter solstice, attributing light, fire, music, and praise to a divine force present as part of an important celestial event.
Here are just some other festivities that happen around the same time as the winter solstice. The Incas celebrate Inti Raymi, honouring the sun god Wiracocha. The Hindu holiday, Diwali, means “Row of Lighted Lamps.” Hanukkah, the Jewish holiday is a celebration in which candles are lit, part of an eight-day Feast of Lights.
Bring the Winter Solstice into Your Life
Although the ways of the ancients seem long and forgotten, the winter solstice can be revived again by placing ourselves within this cosmic and universally celebrated event, tuning ourselves to the influences present in this day. According to some, on the day of the solstices and equinoxes the veil between heaven and earth is much thinner, giving people a chance to connect easier to the spiritual worlds.
From the above listed celebrations and festivals we can see that many traditions paid great importance to veneration and appreciation of both the celestial entity of the sun, and the divine Sons born on the same day. They incorporated light, fire, hymns, music, chanting, and also used symbols. There are even records of elaborate rituals and ceremonies to re-enact a once great initiatory process symbolised through the winter solstice.
To take part in the event in a simple way however, wake up to see the winter solstice sunrise. Choose a place where you know there is a clear view of the sunrise. Arrive on the site well before the actual sunrise to prepare yourself, your space, and to absorb the environment absent of the sun. Take time to listen. Relax your body and mind. Observe the waking nature around you.
An ancient community well known for their connection with nature were called the Essenes. They esteemed the experience of nature greatly since for them the law was written in life and they would often seek the mysteries of divinity through the elements found in nature. In the same way perceive the elements in your solitude, with stillness and observation of the senses. Wait patiently before the sun comes out, so that when it does, like the ancients rejoiced in the triumphant return of the Sun/Divine Son, so too perceive the manifestation in your own unique way.
Incorporate some form of light, as many traditions did, symbolising the light of the sun as well as the spiritual inner light within a person. For example a bonfire, a lit torch, tea-light, or small candle held in a container or holder that would protect it from the elements of wind, rain, snow, etc..
Many ancient traditions such as Vedic, Egyptian, and so on, were strong on offering praise and gratitude towards various forms of divinity. This can be done simply and to one’s own capacity, through prayer, contemplation, inner silence, or meditation.
You may like to look into different themes of the winter solstice and reflect on them silently and inwardly.
The element of sound can be a lovely and uplifting addition to your Solstice experience. You may like to play an instrument or sing a song in appreciation. The mantra AUM according to the Vedic tradition is the primordial sound and therefore is relevant to the winter solstice due to its theme of creation. The mantra is pronounced as it sounds: A as in apple, U as in wood, and M as in mother. To try it, first you breathe in and as you exhale, gently elongate the word AUM. Contrastingly, according to the Essenes, focusing in on the sound of silence perceived in nature, one can hear the sound of Creation.
If circumstances are unsuitable to stay outdoors, improvise for a small personal indoor salutation by setting up and creating an inspiring and serene space in your home or room. Preferably near a window where you may be able to view the sunrise. Light some candles, burn some incense and voila!
If there happens to be no sun due to poor weather or clouds, you can still celebrate with the symbol of light you have at your disposal. You may also like to visualise the sun as a form of silent meditation, incorporating the warmth of its rays and vibrant colours as you recreate the image of the sun internally.