I pen this blog on the day of winter solstice. It is the shortest day of the year from where I sit in the Northern Hemisphere. The daylight hours will be quick and fleeting with less than ten hours of light from our burning sun. The sun solstice is also known as the first day of winter here in the north. Celebrated by humans for millennium this is the darkest day when the North Pole is tilted teeter totter away from our beloved star. After this day the light will slowly begin to grow long and the sun will return to bless fields and yields to sustain us. There is much to celebrate in this returning sun as we look ahead to another year of growing, harvesting and eating good food.
The word “solstice” derives from the Latin words sol (sun) and sistere (to stand still), meaning that the sun has reached its northernmost ecliptic and appears to stand still. In the Northern Hemisphere ancient peoples celebrated the return of the sun with ritual candles, gift giving and of course feasting. Sharing food in celebration was an affirmation that even in this darkest hour there would be plenty.
Christmas is the Christian holiday closest to this annual heavenly event. Being of European decent I am familiar with the Yule log, cakes and even Yule pig, or as my father called it “Christmas ham”. The word Yule comes from the Feast of Juul which was a pre-Christian festival observed in Scandinavia. At winters darkest, fires were lit to symbolize the heat, light and life-giving properties of the returning sun. A Yule or Juul log was burned on the hearth in honor of the Scandinavian god Thor.
Hanukkah is of course the well-known Jewish holiday commemorating the re-dedication of the Temple in 164 B.C. It was a miracle of oil that stayed lit for eight days that inspires the luscious latkes, or potato pancakes. Because potatoes aren’t from the Middle East these pancakes were originally made from cheese. They commemorate the story of Judith, who fed cheese to her father’s enemies, causing them great thirst which led to copious wine consumption and drunken slumber… and thus they were conquered!
The traditions of the winter solstice are varied and rich with symbolism across our globe! In southern India, Hindus commemorate the seasonal return of the sun with Pongal Day which comes from the word ‘ponga’. This literally means boil, spillover or that which is overflowing. It’s also the name of the special sweet dish cooked on the Pongal day! The pongal dish is made with rice, milk, cardamom, jaggery, raisins, green gram, and cashew nuts. Cooking is traditionally done in sunlight, usually in a porch or courtyard, because the dish is dedicated to the sun Surya. Sunny and yummy!
In Pakistan they celebrate the festival of Chaomos, which lasts for at least seven days. It involves ritual bathing singing and chanting, bonfires and ceremonious eating of flat bread and goat’s cheese.
Gody was celebrated in what is now Poland before Christianity and involved forgiveness and sharing food, likely proud polish sausage.
Yaldā is the Persian, festival of the birth of Mithra an Iranian god who was once very popular with ancient Roman soldiers. The story of Mithra says he was created by god to save the world. He was born from a virgin birth on the solstice and the day is referred to as “Dies Natalis Solis Invicti”, which means the birthday of the unconquered sun. The ancient Romans faithfully celebrated Saturnalia as a major holiday that culminated with feasting and drinking.
This custom of gathering families and friends together for feasting and suppers has coincided with the winter solstice throughout cultures from time out of mind. From this wealth of ancient tradition we share the most traditional of foods: those that are easily preserved such as nuts, potatoes, apples, squashes, smoked meats and spicy breads, sweet cakes and warm alcoholic libations.
Whatever your holiday tradition or celebration is this year remember the timing of the festivities originate from the annual passage of the sun. From fall into winter, from death into birth the return of the light is cyclical and brings promise. This promise assures the soil will once again bear fruit and feed us all.
Light a fire, burn a candle and give thanks for this special ball, whirling and tilting around a star that we all call home. Blessings on your holiday!
For an excellent solstice walking meditation article visit Simply Centered.
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