Closer Readings Commentary

Winter Solstice Customs ~ the victory of light over darkness!

“As the Spirits of Darkness be stronger in the dark, so Good Spirits, which be Angels of Light, are augmented not only by the Divine light of the Sun, but also by our common Wood Fire: and as the Celestial Fire drives away dark spirits, so also this our Fire of Wood doth the same.” —Cor. Agrippa, Occult Philosophy, Book v.

Winter is right around the corner! In 2013, winter begins with the solstice at 12:11 P.M. on December 21st (EST). Open the Gift of Holiday Traditions: Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, and Christmas! to take a peek at customs from ancient and modern times marking this annual event.

For the ancient Romans, the winter solstice was a time of the Saturnalia festival, marked by gift giving and revelry, as well as bonfires and a practice of topsy-turvy role reversals between master and servants. Like Kwanzaa, Saturnalia centered on giving thanks for the fruits of the earth and plentiful crops that would ensure continued prosperity in the coming year. Business transactions were forbidden and relaxation was the watchword for servants as well as masters. The Romans had a tradition of exchanging ceramic dolls called sigillaria, which they hung on the branches of evergreen trees. Similarity has been drawn between the pointed felt hats worn by department store Santas and a brimless hat, called a pileus, worn by the Romans during this festival.

In Northern European folklore, the twelve days between Christmas and the Feast of the Epiphany (January 5th, otherwise known as "Twelfth Night") were thought to be a time when evil spirits were especially active. To combat these forces as well as celebrate the victory of light over winter darkness, people would go out to the woods to gather evergreen plants and trees such as pine, ivy, and holly and decorate their homes with them along with all manner of lights. The practice of putting up a Christmas tree seems to be of rather recent in origin, as late as the 16th century. It originates with the Germans who began to bring small fir trees into their households and ornament them with fruit, tinsel, and small candles.

In a similar way, the Yule log was kindled on Christmas Eve in European countries and was kept burning through Twelfth night. The Yule log is a remnant of the bonfires that were lit by pre-Christian people during the winter solstice to symbolize the return of the sun. It was traditional to retain a small piece of unburnt Yule log to kindle next year’s Yule fire. This annual ritual lighting was intended to guarantee prosperity in the coming year, extending from the whole cosmos to the natural world to the family circle.

Holiday customs from Mexico also include the practice of creating pathways of light known as las luminarias, or los farolitos in the weeks leading up to Christmas Eve. This tradition has its origins in the 16th century. It harkens back to the Spanish tradition of lighting bonfires in churchyards and roads to guide people to the church for midnight mass on Christmas Eve, known as “Misa de Gallo” (“Rooster Mass”)—based on the belief that the only time a rooster crowed at midnight was when the Christ child was born. Today, luminarias involve lit candles placed inside brown paper bags with sand linings to decorate walkways during the Christmas season. Luminarias as a symbol of welcome have also been integrated into mainstream American culture, though this custom is most often practiced in New Mexico.

Today electric light decorations adorn communities all across the country flooding our neighborhoods and civic buildings with festive and sometimes garish displays to stave off the early darkness of winter nights. The Library of Congress answers an everyday mystery: Who invented electric Christmas lights?!

Discover the History of the National Christmas Trees in this description of traditions surrounding our National (Community) Christmas Tree dating back to 1923. Tour the History of the White House Christmas tree to revisit themes of first family celebrations through the years. The 2013 White House Holiday theme has just been announced: 'Gather Around. It celebrates the stories and traditions that bring us together this special time of year. As members of one American family, we are united in a story built over the course of two centuries. The holidays serve as an opportunity to recall our Nation's journey, reflect on our blessings, and to remember those who serve and sacrifice for our freedoms.

May your holiday be filled with light!