Did you know that Winter solstice traditions are remarkably similar around the world? And did you know that most of our Christmas traditions come from those winter solstice traditions? In this article, we shall explore the various winter solstice traditions around the world.
Winter begins with the winter solstice, on the 22nd day of December in the Northern hemisphere, the day when the sun is lowest in the sky and daylight is shortest. The word “solstice” is a compound word from Latin meaning “Sun stands [still].” Starting on December 22, and lasting three days, the sun literally stands still from our perspective. Then, on December 25, it starts to rise higher in the sky, as if it had been born again.
That is why Christmas is on December 25. Since the sun is the literal light of the world, and since the Christ was the metaphorical light of the world, it seemed appropriate to the founders of Christianity to set Christ’s birthday on that auspicious day.
Almost every culture has had a winter solstice tradition. My personal favorite winter solstice tradition is the Mongolian tradition. So, let’s start with that one. Mongolians call the winter solstice the Uvliin Toil. Uvliin means winter’s; and Toil means both (a) climax; and (b) pole.
Interestingly, Toilakh means to be at the end of one’s rope, to become completely exhausted. To me it signifies a double entendre: The sun has reached the end of its rope, and it is exhausted from its work.
According to an article by Jade Wah’oo Grigori, entitled: “A Time of the Shaman’s Gift Bringing;” the traditional Mongolian winter solstice is a very, very, meaningful and important time for all Mongolians who still follow the old ways. It is written that the Mongolian village shaman was and still is very central and important to the winter solstice ritual.
Villagers gather at the shaman’s ger, a circular tent or yurt (as it is called in Turkey). A ger has a central pole which represents the ‘mother tree’, called “Ej mod.” It is called other things too, like the “Tree of Life” and the “Pole of Ascension.” The ger’s ceiling is supported by 81 ribs, representing the 9-times-9 pillars which hold the heavens apart from the earth. The ‘mother tree’ points to the North Star, figuratively of course. So, at the top of the ‘Tree of Life’ sits the ‘Star’. This is the origin of our Christmas trees.
Mongolians traditionally have believed that the abode of each person’s soul is a different star. Superstitiously, Mongolians have traditionally believed that a falling star represents the death of some individual on Earth. The unmoving, eternal North Star is the abode of the Great Spirit.
It is also referred to as the “Heart of the eagle” or the “Compassionate heart of purification”. Each winter solstice people should send their soul to the North Star for purification. Most people don’t know how to do it, so the services of the Shaman are invoked.
The villagers gather in the shaman’s tent, having brought gifts and placing them under the “mother tree”. In return for the gifts, the shaman undertakes a spiritual journey to the North Star with his culpable clients’ souls for the purpose of purification. This is the reason that we put gifts under the Christmas tree today.
Then, when the Shaman returns with his cleansed clients’ souls, the Mother Tree shimmers with the light of each purified soul, reawakened to or renewed by the light of the North Star. This is the origin of the tradition of putting Christmas lights on the Christmas tree.
In addition to the Christmas tree, Scandinavian tribes had their Yuletide traditions. Yule means feasting, and tide means season. The Scandinavian tribes have given us the following Yuletide traditions: (1) Feasting, (2) Keeping the Yule log lit all night on the 24th of December, and (3) Hanging mistletoe.
Why do we have feasts at Christmas time? I don’t think anybody knows. My best guess would be that due to very little daylight, there was nothing else to do but stay indoors. Since they didn’t have television or internet in those days, my guess is that indoor activities were limited to eating, drinking and being merry.
Why must one keep the Yule log burning all night on the 24th of December? The answer is to re-ignite the Sun. The fallacious fear was that if one did not keep the Yule log burning all night long, the Sun would not be reborn on the 25th of December. As a result, the world would plunge into eternal darkness and all creatures would die.
Why do we hang mistletoe at Christmas time? It is because of the Scandinavian myth about Balder and Loki. Balder was the god of truth and light; the personification of the Sun. Loki was the god of mischief and chaos; the personification of darkness and the chaotic cosmic sea.
The myth goes like this: Balder’s mother had asked all the plants and animals of earth never to harm her son, Balder, but there was one plant that she overlooked; it was mistletoe. Loki became jealous of Balder’s popularity and he was annoyed by the noise devoted to Balder’s praise.
So, he clandestinely disguised himself as an old hag and visited Balder’s mother. Through their conversations, he found out that there was one and only one living thing on Earth that she had not made contract with not to harm her son. Loki then made an arrow out of mistletoe, which he used to kill Balder.
Three days later, after much mourning, Balder’s mother resurrected Balder. Then, she made mistletoe promise to never harm another living thing. This is why mistletoe is used as decoration at winter solstice time. It is the symbol of peace and love and tranquility.
But, why do we celebrate Christmas for a whole month, starting with the day after Thanksgiving. Well, that tradition came from the Romans. Before the winter solstice traditions were merged with Christmas, the Romans had a winter solstice tradition called Brumalia. According to Rober Maza’s research, Brumalia was originally celebrated only on the 24th and 25th of December to commemorate the “sol invictus” (the invincible sun).
It celebrated the Sun’s victory over death. Later, the holiday became associated with the Roman Sun god Bacchus (same as the Greek god Dionysus) and it was celebrated the whole month of Bacchus (December). In addition to being a Sun god, Bacchus was the liberator of life’s burdens through imbibing and making merry.
In conclusion, our world’s winter solstice traditions, by whatever name, are full of wonderful meaning. Sadly, it is a meaning that has been almost completely lost. It my sincere hope that we revive the original meanings of the winter solstice traditions, so that they are not lost to posterity.
Let us remember that our Christmas trees have very ancient Mongolian roots; that the star at the top of the tree represents purification of our hearts and souls; that our Scandinavian Yule logs have kept the Sun burning for millennia; And, that the mistletoe which hangs from our ceilings symbolizes love, peace, and tranquility. Please tell these stories to your children, so that they may tell them to their children.
Finally, as we approach winter solstice of 2012, may our hearts and souls be purified by the light of the Great Spirit; may Sun be reborn again to give its life-giving light unto the world for another year; and may we all experience eternal love, peace, and tranquility.