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Solstice Watchers Blend Ancient, Modern Traditions


With the arrival of the Winter Solstice (December 22 00:22 UTC), the Northern Hemisphere days begin to get longer. For pre-scientific peoples, living through the gradual lengthening of night must have been frightening, and it would have been the cause for joy and celebration at the solstice when the light seemed to be returning. But you don't have to be a part of ancient history to enjoy the revelry of this time. The Winter Solstice carries sacred significance to many modern people as well.

California musician Ann Hill, the co-author of Circle Round: Raising Children in Goddess Traditions, a book of stories and hands-on activities for families who wish to put nature and its cycle at the center of their spiritual life, notes the Winter Solstice is an important part of their calendar.

"This is the time of Yule," she says "the ancient name for the Winter Solstice, the longest night and the shortest day of the year where the swirling snow and the icy mist, and the cold touches our bones. There is no warmth left in the ground and night seems to go on forever."

Hill says throughout history, people in every corner of the globe have celebrated Winter Solstice, recognizing it as the moment "when the sun starts its slow ascent towards the summer."

Many seasonal religious holidays echo that experience today, even if they do not make any direct reference to the sun or to nature. Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus who is called "The Light of the World." The eight-day Jewish Festival of Hanukkah celebrates the miracles of light's rebirth and growth.

Diane Baker, another co-author of Circle Round says people simply "have the urge in these long cold dark nights to have candles burning which are warm and which give us light."

Like Ms. Hill, Ms Baker's spiritual practices are tied directly to nature, which she often personifies with female divinities like Mother Earth and Grandmother Moon, and traditionally male symbols like the sun and the sky.

To make the concept of "light emerging from darkness" real to her children, she says they decorate the house with paper cutouts of the sun, which are black on one side and bright yellow paper on the other. They cover them with glue and glitter and hang them on the children's doors.

"When we go to sleep on Solstice night, the black sides are facing out," Baker says. The following morning, she and her husband wake the children before dawn, and "we go to the highest place and greet the sun. And we dance, and we eat cookies we baked the night before. And when we come back we run into the house and we turn the signs over to their yellow, glittery sides."

But the Winter Solstice is not just for children. It inspires deep-seated anxieties and truth that are stuff of poetry, theater and myth. Starhawk, the third co-author of Circle Round, likes to read a prose poem, based on the Celtic agrarian tradition, in which the sun is personified as a dark aged King reborn as a child to the Mother Goddess.

This is the night of Solstice, the longest night of the year. Now Darkness triumphs and yet gives way and changes into Light. The breath of Nature is suspended. All waits while within the cauldron the Dark King is transformed into the Infant Light. We watch for the coming of the dawn when the Great Mother again gives birth to the child Sun who is the bringer of hope and the promise of summer. We turn the wheel to bring the Light. We call the sun from the womb of Night.

Goddess-based spirituality celebrates the many correspondences between the cycles of nature and the rhythms of human life. Understanding and making use of those principles is the source of both magic and power in the view of many on that path.

"You can do a ritual at the point of longest darkness that allows you to somehow visualize something in your life that you want to increase, maybe courage or truth or even abundance," says high priestess Diana Jordan. "And as the days grow longer, the light grows longer, you can visualize and imagine that thing increasing for you."

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