The Weekly Watch
The Longest Night
We are tied to the natural world in ways which we are unaware. Time is an odd concept constantly in flux....sunrise to sunset. As it passes the wheel of the year rolls ever faster...wearing ever smaller and gathering speed as it goes downhill. Perhaps it is our pagan past, but somehow this seems a time of year for reflection...like the god Janus looking forward and backward in time. For now the darkness passes and the light will grow. It is a time to celebrate across religions, cultures, and countries.
“Solstice” comes from two Latin words: sol meaning "sun" and sistere meaning “to stand still” because it appeared as though the sun had stopped moving in the sky. Last night at 10:19 pm (CST) the sun shone its southern most rays for the year. Now the sun will slowly begin to make its journey back toward the north. The longest night of the year, followed by a renewal of the sun, demonstrates the cyclical order of the cosmos. In this way, celebrating the solstice creates a remembrance that our lives are part of a larger order, always changing, always renewing.
The sun is our primary tool of time (we operate on a solar calendar), but we have another marker. The lunar cycle...a moonth so to speak. Many cultures continue to use lunar calendars. Lunar calendars differ as to which day is the first day of the month. For some lunar calendars, such as the Chinese calendar, the first day of a month is the day when an astronomical new moon occurs in a particular time zone. For others, such as some Hindu calendars, each month begins on the day after the full moon or the new moon. Others were based in the past on the first sighting of a lunar crescent, such as the Hebrew calendar.The average length of the synodic month is 29.530589 days. This requires the length of a month to be alternately 29 and 30 days (termed respectively hollow and full). The tabular Islamic calendar’s 360-month cycle is equivalent to 24×15 months minus a correction of one day. https://fullmoonphases.com/lunar-calendar-2019/
Full Moon names here in the US date back to Native Americans, of what is now the northern and eastern United States. The tribes kept track of the seasons by giving distinctive names to each recurring full Moon. Their names were applied to the entire month in which each occurred. There was some variation in the Moon names, but in general, the same ones were current throughout the Algonquin tribes from New England to Lake Superior. European settlers followed that custom and created some of their own names. Since the lunar month is only 29 days long on the average, the full Moon dates shift from year to year. Here is the Farmers Almanac's list of the full Moon names.
• Full Wolf Moon - January Amid the cold and deep snows of midwinter, the wolf packs howled hungrily outside Indian villages. Thus, the name for January's full Moon. Sometimes it was also referred to as the Old Moon, or the Moon After Yule. Some called it the Full Snow Moon, but most tribes applied that name to the next Moon.
• Full Snow Moon - February Since the heaviest snow usually falls during this month, native tribes of the north and east most often called February's full Moon the Full Snow Moon. Some tribes also referred to this Moon as the Full Hunger Moon, since harsh weather conditions in their areas made hunting very difficult.
• Full Worm - March Moon As the temperature begins to warm and the ground begins to thaw, earthworm casts appear, heralding the return of the robins. The more northern tribes knew this Moon as the Full Crow Moon, when the cawing of crows signaled the end of winter; or the Full Crust Moon, because the snow cover becomes crusted from thawing by day and freezing at night. The Full Sap Moon, marking the time of tapping maple trees, is another variation. To the settlers, it was also known as the Lenten Moon, and was considered to be the last full Moon of winter.
• Full Pink Moon - April This name came from the herb moss pink, or wild ground phlox, which is one of the earliest widespread flowers of the spring. Other names for this month's celestial body include the Full Sprouting Grass Moon, the Egg Moon, and among coastal tribes the Full Fish Moon, because this was the time that the shad swam upstream to spawn.
• Full Flower Moon - May In most areas, flowers are abundant everywhere during this time. Thus, the name of this Moon. Other names include the Full Corn Planting Moon, or the Milk Moon.
• Full Strawberry Moon - June This name was universal to every Algonquin tribe. However, in Europe they called it the Rose Moon. Also because the relatively short season for harvesting strawberries comes each year during the month of June . . . so the full Moon that occurs during that month was christened for the strawberry!
• The Full Buck Moon - July July is normally the month when the new antlers of buck deer push out of their foreheads in coatings of velvety fur. It was also often called the Full Thunder Moon, for the reason that thunderstorms are most frequent during this time. Another name for this month's Moon was the Full Hay Moon.
• Full Sturgeon Moon - August The fishing tribes are given credit for the naming of this Moon, since sturgeon, a large fish of the Great Lakes and other major bodies of water, were most readily caught during this month. A few tribes knew it as the Full Red Moon because, as the Moon rises, it appears reddish through any sultry haze. It was also called the Green Corn Moon or Grain Moon.
• Full Harvest Moon - September This is the full Moon that occurs closest to the autumn equinox. In two years out of three, the Harvest Moon comes in September, but in some years it occurs in October. At the peak of harvest, farmers can work late into the night by the light of this Moon. Usually the full Moon rises an average of 50 minutes later each night, but for the few nights around the Harvest Moon, the Moon seems to rise at nearly the same time each night: just 25 to 30 minutes later across the U.S., and only 10 to 20 minutes later for much of Canada and Europe. Corn, pumpkins, squash, beans, and wild rice the chief Indian staples are now ready for gathering.
• Full Hunter's Moon - October With the leaves falling and the deer fattened, it is time to hunt. Since the fields have been reaped, hunters can easily see fox and the animals which have come out to glean.
• Full Beaver Moon - November This was the time to set beaver traps before the swamps froze, to ensure a supply of warm winter furs. Another interpretation suggests that the name Full Beaver Moon comes from the fact that the beavers are now actively preparing for winter. It is sometimes also referred to as the Frosty Moon.
But this is a day of the sun, our star. (3 years in 4 min)
Humans have recognized the importance of the solstice for millennia. The stones pictured at the top of today's column are part of the Ring of Brodgar erected about 2500 BC on the island of Orkney in Northern Scotland. It is part of a larger complex of many neolithic monuments including Maeshowe, a chambered tomb that aligns with the sunset this evening. (3 min)
Ireland has many chambered tombs which align with the solstice sun. Perhaps the best known is Newgrange, which is also part of a larger neolithic site, Brú na Bóinne. Like the Orkney sites this tomb is over 5000 years old.
Some are much smaller and remote...yet still align with the solstice sunrise or sunset.
The best known of the neolithic time pieces is probably Stonehenge...
...where there's a party and gathering on the cardinal days of the year like the solstice. It is much newer than the sites on Orkney and in Ireland.
Here in the new world the arrangement and orientation of buildings were often used as markers. The fairly new (1300-1400) coastal town of Tulum is an example...
The N. American ceremonial city in Chaco Canyon NM has buildings which align and petroglyph sun daggers.
So around the world ancient peoples went to great lengths to identify the day of the solstice. No wonder there are so many holidays centered on this time of year....many of them focused on this day. In general, the themes of community, good health, and the return of sunlight are obvious patterns in every celebration of the winter solstice.
The ancestors of the people from Chaco canyon (above) are the Hopi.
In the Southwestern United States, several Native American groups, most notably the Hopi, observe a mid-winter celebration called Soyal. This 16-day ceremony includes a variety of events, and most of them mark the beginning of a new year as the sun returns to the world. During the winter solstice, it was believed that the sun god was furthest from the tribe. The Kachinas and other warriors from the tribe would dance to entice him back, and these activities are still part of Soyal celebrations today. Soyal celebrations are not typically open to the public.
In Japan, the shortest day of the year is called Tōji. Many Japanese people will participate in specific events to mark Tōji on the Winter Solstice, as it begins the winter season and colder weather that follows. Yuzuyu is One of the most popular Tōji activities; it’s a bath with yuzu fruit. Yuzu is an aromatic Asian citrus fruit that tastes similar to grapefruit. In cooking, yuzu is a garnish or flavor more than an ingredient. Yuzu is also thought to have cleansing properties and symbolizes good luck. On Tōji, some Japanese will draw a hot bath and add several whole yuzus to the bath, allowing them to soak in the water and the whole bath to become aromatic. It’s thought that this bath helps fight illness and ward off evil spirits. Similarly, it’s common to visit the Onsen (Japanese spas) for Tōji, as they promote good health.
In China, Dōngzhì is the winter solstice festival. Dōngzhì is associated with yin and yang philosophies. As the sunlight begins to return to the northern hemisphere, this increases the flow of positive energy in life. That sounds like a good reason to celebrate! Dōngzhì is a family holiday; family members come together to eat and drink together. One of the most common foods for celebrating Dōngzhì is tangyuan, balls of glutinous rice served in a soup for each family member. Tangyuan symbolizes reunion, much as celebrating Dōngzhì brings the family together. In some parts of China, dumplings are another popular Dōngzhì food. Some families will also visit their ancestral temples to worship, creating even more of a ‘reunion’ on Dōngzhì.
Yaldā, also known as Shab-e Yalda or Shab-e Chelleh in Persian, marks the winter solstice in modern Iran. Many people celebrate Yaldā night with family and friends, celebrating the passage of the darkest day of the year. It also occurs on the final night of the month of Azar, which is the ninth month of the year; winter begins as the new month (Dey) begins the following day. In some traditions, you should stay up at least past midnight on Yaldā to avoid the misfortunes of the year’s longest night. Yaldā celebrations are usually a small, social event where friends and family gather to eat and drink together. Fruits (especially pomegranate and watermelon) and nuts are common foods for a Yaldā night celebration. It’s also common to read poetry including the famous Persian poet Hafez. Sometimes, elder family members will share stories and anecdotes too, to help pass the time.
And the one we're familiar with is Yule...
Yule is probably the most well-known Winter Solstice celebration, because of its close ties to Christmas. Before the rise of Christianity in Europe, especially Northern Europe, Yule was a midwinter holiday to celebrate the midpoint in Winter. There is evidence that it was celebrated throughout northern Europe, from the Norse in Norway to Germanic peoples in what became modern Germany. Today, Yule is often celebrated in its more traditional forms by those who observe Paganism. It’s typically a day of gathering and sometimes gift-giving. Some Wicca also celebrate Yule with private ceremonies at home or with their covens. Most of us celebrate the modern, Christianized interpretation of Yule when we celebrate Christmas! Even the Yule log many people burn has its roots in celebrations of Yule, giving heat against the winter cold.
Today is the last day of Saturnalia
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5lsctaPJSvo (13 min)
From Solstice to Christmas is a journey of gods and cultures...
(the next portion is excerpted from a column few years ago)
Whatever your preferred holiday, chances are you are carrying on some traditions from the Roman holiday Saturnalia. a harvest festival that marked the winter solstice—the return of the sun—and honoring Saturn, the god of agriculture. (In 2019, Saturn is in the SW sky South of Venus just after sunset. Soon the moon will come between them.)
In the Roman world, Saturnalia was a time of merrymaking and exchanging of gifts. The houses were decorated with greenery and lights, and gifts were given to children and the poor. This week-long bacchanal also included lots of food and wine, dancing and music. Slaves got the week off work, courts were closed, and all kinds of debauchery took place. One of the highlights of Saturnalia was the switching of traditional roles, particularly between a master and his slave. Everyone got to wear the red pileus, or freedman's hat, and slaves were free to be as impertinent as they wished to their owners. However, despite the appearance of a reversal of social order, there were actually some fairly strict boundaries. A master might serve his slaves dinner, but the slaves were the ones who prepared it -- this kept Roman society in order, but still allowed everyone to have a good time.
Businesses and court proceedings closed up for the entire celebration, and food and drink were everywhere to be had. Elaborate feasts and banquets were held, and it wasn't unusual to exchange small gifts at these parties. A typical Saturnalia gift might be something like a writing tablet or tool, cups and spoons, clothing items, or food. Citizens decked their halls and even hung small tin ornaments on bushes and trees. Bands of naked revelers often roamed the streets, singing and carousing - a sort of naughty precursor to today's Christmas caroling tradition.
The Roman philosopher Seneca the Younger wrote, "It is now the month of December, when the greatest part of the city is in a bustle. Loose reins are given to public dissipation; everywhere you may hear the sound of great preparations, as if there were some real difference between the days devoted to Saturn and those for transacting business....Were you here, I would willingly confer with you as to the plan of our conduct; whether we should eve in our usual way, or, to avoid singularity, both take a better supper and throw off the toga."
This festival honored Saturn, and he was an agricultural god. To keep him happy, fertility rituals took place under the mistletoe. During the Saturnalia branches of holly were exchanged as tokens of friendship. Female holly plants cannot have berries unless a nearby male plant pollinates them. So, the holly wreath is a token of friendship and fertility.
To honor the god Saturn, homes and hearths were decorated with boughs of greenery – vines, ivy, and the like. The ancient Egyptians didn't have evergreen trees, but they had palms -- and the palm tree was the symbol of resurrection and rebirth. They often brought the fronds into their homes during the time of the winter solstice. Among the Druids the oak was sacred, among the Egyptians it was the palm, and in Rome it was the fir, which was decorated with red berries during the Saturnalia.
An old tale from Babylon told of an evergreen tree which sprang out of a dead tree stump. The old stump symbolized the dead Nimrod, the new evergreen tree symbolized that Nimrod had come to life again in Tammuz. “Santa” was a common name for Nimrod throughout Asia Minor. This was also the same fire god who came down the chimneys of the ancient pagans.
Among early Germanic tribes, one of the major deities was Odin, the ruler of Asgard. A number of similarities exist between some of Odin's escapades and those of the figure who would become Santa Claus. Odin was often depicted as leading a hunting party through the skies, during which he rode his eight-legged horse, Sleipnir. In the 13th-century Poetic Edda, Sleipnir is described as being able to leap great distances, which some scholars have compared to the legends of Santa's reindeer. Odin was typically portrayed as an old man with a long, white beard -- much like St. Nicholas himself.
The German and Celtic Yule rites merged with the Roman traditions when the Teutonic tribes penetrated into Gaul, Britain and central Europe. To the food and good fellowship, greenery, gifts and greetings they added the Yule log. Fires and lights, symbols of warmth and lasting life, have always been associated with the winter festival, both pagan and Christian.
Because each type of wood is associated with various magical and spiritual properties, logs from different types of trees might be burned to get a variety of effects. Aspen is the wood of choice for spiritual understanding, while the mighty oak is symbolic of strength and wisdom. A family hoping for a year of prosperity might burn a log of pine, while a couple hoping to be blessed with fertility would drag a bough of birch to their hearth.
In legend, at the Winter Solstice or Yule, the Oak King conquers the Holly King, and then reigns until Midsummer or Litha. Once the Summer Solstice arrives, the Holly King returns to do battle with the old king, and defeats him. In some traditions, the Oak King and the Holly King are seen as dual aspects of the Horned God. Each of these twin aspects rules for half the year, battles for the favor of the Goddess, and then retires to nurse his wounds for the next six months, until it is time for him to reign once more.
Often, these two entities are portrayed in familiar ways - the Holly King frequently appears as a woodsy version of Santa Claus. He dresses in red, wears a sprig of holly in his tangled hair, and is sometimes depicted driving a team of eight stags. The Oak King is portrayed as a fertility god and occasionally appears as the Green Man or other lord of the forest.
The name for the festival of the Winter Solstice in Druidry is Alban Arthan, which means 'The Light of Arthur'. Some Druid Orders believe this means the Light of the hero King Arthur Pendragon who is symbolically reborn as the Sun Child (The Mabon) at the time of the Solstice. Others see the Light belonging to the star constellation known as the Great Bear (or the Plough) - Arthur, or Art, being Gaelic for Bear. This constellation shines out in the sky and can symbolize the rebirth of the Sun.
This time of year is very cold and bleak, which is why so many celebrations are needed to help people get through the Winter months. It is significant that many civilizations welcomed their Solar Gods at the time of greatest darkness - including Mithras (the bull-headed Warrior God), the Egyptian God Horus and, more recently, Jesus Christ.
Somehow, I missed out on Mithra. I wonder if he is neglected because of his similarity to the Christ figure.
"Mithra or Mitra is...worshipped as Itu (Mitra-Mitu-Itu) in every house of the Hindus in India. This Mithra or Mitra (Sun-God) is believed to be a Mediator between God and man, between the Sky and the Earth. It is said that Mithra or [the] Sun took birth in the Cave on December 25th. It is also the belief of the Christian world that Mithra or the Sun-God was born of [a] Virgin. He traveled far and wide. He has twelve satellites, which are taken as the Sun's disciples.... [The Sun's] great festivals are observed in the Winter Solstice and the Vernal Equinox—Christmas and Easter. His symbol is the Lamb...."
The Romans attributed Mithraism to Persians or Zoroastrians. Mithra is a judicial figure, an all-seeing Protector of Truth, and the Guardian of Cattle, the Harvest and of The Waters. Some claim Mithra represents the Sun itself, but the Khorda Avesta refers to the Sun as a separate entity – as it does with the Moon, with which the Sun has "the Best of Friendships," Mithraism has sometimes been viewed as a rival of early Christianity
In Rome, the worship of Mithra reached a peak during the second and third centuries, before largely expiring at the end of the fourth/beginning of fifth centuries. Among its members during this period were emperors, politicians and businessmen. Indeed, before its usurpation by Christianity Mithraism enjoyed the patronage of some of the most important individuals in the Roman Empire. In the fifth century, the emperor Julian, having rejected his birth-religion of Christianity, adopted Mithraism and "introduced the practice of the worship at Constantinople."
For the first three centuries of Christianity’s existence, Christ’s birth wasn’t celebrated at all. The religion’s most significant holidays were Epiphany on January 6, which commemorated the arrival of the Magi after Jesus’ birth, and Easter, which celebrated Jesus’ resurrection. In 325AD, Constantine the Great, the first Christian Roman emperor, introduced Christmas as an immovable feast on December 25th. He also introduced Sunday as a holy day in a new 7-day week, and introduced movable feasts (Easter). In 354AD, Bishop Liberius of Rome officially ordered his members to celebrate the birth of Jesus on 25 December.
Here's the History Channel's take on how Christmas evolved. (3 min)
So, to wrap up this longer than expected look at how we ended up with Christmas (which started with wiki and branched all over till I lost track of what I got where which is why I didn't source this piece). These December holidays are all about the return of light. Celebrations are found across most cultures. December 21st is also the festival of the Japanese sun goddess Amaterasu, and represents her "coming out of the cave," a typical solar myth... Light and Darkness.
Round we go. Year to year. Mostly blind to our connection with the cosmos. Do not doubt we are a star ship in space. The only water planet of which we are aware. This is the gift. This beautiful planet which we inhabit. The incredible intricate ecology that provides stability to the system is being eroded. Consider everyday a gift. It is. That's why they call it the present.