In the first post in this series, The Cycles of Nature Within Us, I explored some of the reasons observing the turning points of the year is important for us. I pointed out that what happens in nature happens in us, because there is nothing that is not us. I led you through a series of modern day experiments that point very clearly to that new reality that has set old scientific paradigms on their ear.
So in this post, I want to home in on the Winter Solstice itself. First, for those who might be thinking, “But why should I care? I celebrate Christmas.” (Or Kwanzaa or Hanukah or any other holiday that falls in late December.) You should care because nature’s cycles were repeating long before man came along to create organized religions and set certain holidays at certain times. In fact, nature’s cycles are the reasons man chose to place certain holidays at certain times. Pre-Religion Man observed these cycles already, so when religion came along, it made sense to keep the old holidays, and just re-name them. The old feast days would keep their symbolism. They would keep their deep meaning. It would just be couched in a new story. This is why Jesus’ birthday is celebrated at Winter Solstice time. The Solstice was already being celebrated as the time when the sun died at sunset and was reborn the next dawn, when the days would once again begin to lengthen. Jesus was, scholars agree, probably born in October. But the Solstice fit so much better for all that His birth represented. The triumph of light over darkness. The promise that death is an illusion and that life always prevails. The hope and the light being brought to mankind at its darkest moment. It’s beautiful, isn’t it?
Long ago, the Laplanders in the north, celebrated the Winter Solstice too. Their bearded shamans, who sometimes dressed in red robes trimmed in reindeer fur and jingle bells, went into deep meditative states to take journeys, leaving their bodies and flying through the skies to the Otherwords, where they would find gifts of wisdom and prophecy to bring back to their people. The peoples’ cone-shaped homes typically had a central fire, and the peak of the cone was open to allow the smoke to escape. The shamans visualized leaving and returning to their bodies by way of that opening. The opening for the smoke. The chimney. Get it?
There are countless other links to be made between ancient customs and our modern holiday traditions in John Matthews’ book, THE WINTER SOLSTICE.
So what, exactly, is it that is happening to us (and to All That Is) at this time of the year? (Quick disclaimer: this is all reversed in the southern hemisphere. Winter Solstice there is June 21st, when we in the northern half of the globe will celebrate Summer Solstice. The cycle is that of the sun.)
In winter, our growing season is, for the most part, suspended. We don’t plant. We don’t tend. We don’t harvest. We rest. The earth rests too, in a dormant state that is a mirror of the human death experience. Everything has gone within, where we can’t see it or touch it or taste it. Like a bear hibernating in her cave.
But what is happening to that bear in her cave? To the seeds in the ground that fell from plants this past summer and fall? What is happening to us?
The bear is digesting all she took in before her long winter’s nap. She’s processing all the food she has stored up in her body.
The sleeping seeds lie under the soil, their outer shells decomposing, freeing their softer insides so they’ll be able to sprout in the spring. Each seed’s DNA, which it got from its parent plant, is slightly altered according to that parents’ experience during the growing season. If there was drought, the new seed will require less water. If there was a heat wave, the new seed will be less likely to wilt at high temps.
We too, are designed to process all we took in over the past year. Winter is a time to slow down. To ruminate. To spend more time thinking and journaling and meditating, more time reading and learning and processing, and less time hustling and bustling. Sadly, our usual holiday traditions mostly have us doing just the opposite.
Like the unsprouted little seeds, we are supposed to be reaching conclusions about what the three preceding seasons of living have taught us, and what changes we will make because of what we’ve learned. Like them, we should be shedding any dried out old husk that no longer serves us, so that we can sprout to fresh new growth more easily in the spring.
The days are shorter. The nights are longer. Darkness reigns this time of year. Our own shadows, our inner darkness, is upon us. I think the reason for an increase in depression over the winter months is a reflection of that, and yes, a direct result of sunlight’s lack. That’s why every spiritual tradition celebrates this time of year with light. The candles of the menorah. The fires in our hearths. The lights on the Christmas tree. The increasing numbers of stars in the northern night sky as the dark months roll in. We can choose to let own shadows overtake us as we’re naturally prone to do, or we can do what our ancestors have done from time immemorial, and blaze our lights bright against the dark, secure in the knowledge that the light will return as it always does.
This is the time when we are very much like caterpillars in our cocoons. We’re processing, mulling, growing, and changing.
The winter solstice is a mirror image of what happens to us when we leave our bodies at what we call death. We shed our suddenly useless husks and emerge pure spirit, and our oneness with things is no longer a theory or a meditation. It’s a vivid reality, more vivid and more real than our experience in the physical ever seemed. We spend time processing our entire lifetime, pondering all we learned, and using it to grow and change and expand not just ourselves, but the Whole, because what happens to us happens to All. And I believe, eventually, we return to fresh new bodies and do it all again.
Like death, Winter Solstice is a time of repose, a time when we process the previous spring, summer and fall, and use what we’ve learned to evolve ourselves to a higher level. It’s also a time when we connect to our fellow humans by exchanging gifts and sharing meals to nourish us, comparing notes and encouraging one another not to fear the darkness, but to embrace what it has to teach instead. We review the year with one another, celebrating that oneness in our limited, physical way.
And the minute the sun rises on December 22nd, (or December 25th, it's all the same energy) we begin to implement changes deep within us. (And it bleeds right over into a week later, at New Year's Day. Same things are happening.) We now know what we want to alter, how we want to grow. We immerse ourselves in planning, in learning all we need to know, in tuning our inner dial to the new signal we now intend to send and receive. We are now preparing for the coming growing season, as every single day gets a little longer and a little longer.
Sunrise Christmas morning is the most beautiful moment of the entire year for me. Because it is the living embodiment of the promise, the unimpeachable natural law, that light always returns. That darkness never lasts long. That death is an illusion, the dark part of the cycle, but that life never really ends. And that we always have another chance. A perpetual do-over as we become better, wiser, kinder, year after year, lifetime after lifetime.
Post 3 in this series will explore how we can implement all of this in our own busy, hustle bustle holiday season, and will offer a simple Winter Solstice ritual you can use to honor the darkness and the return of the light. Merry Merry!