Winter solstice takes place on Thursday, Dec. 22 at 12:30 a.m. EST. This lovely image is your tax dollars at work, from NASA.gov.
The cool astronomical diagram is from the BBC. If you are even a little bit nerdy you will enjoy the explanation of how the seasons are measured. I never knew that winter is the shortest season, I always thought February was three months long.
My minister, quoting science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, said, “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”
That’s why I like Solstice as a winter holiday. You don’t have to believe in it, it doesn’t demand faith, it just happens as it has since long before life began on this planet.
Don’t put too much credence in the ‘shortest day’ hype, though. The days do not begin to lengthen appreciably until early February, when we celebrate Candlemas, the halfway point to spring.
The Winter Solstice has passed, the historical lunar eclipse was seen, and now we go forth from darkness into light. It is the center point of the dark half of the year. The holiday of Imbolc or Candlemas is also called the Feast of the Waxing Light.
This is a time of purification, after the shut-in of winter, through the renewing power of the Sun. It was once marked in Europe with huge blazes, torches and fires in every form to chase away the last of the bitter winter cold.
According to the Almanac, we reach the ten hour day at about this point in the year. You might go to work in daylight, and still see the last of the sun when you punch out. That is a cheering thought.
February 2nd also marks Groundhog Day, a fun American holiday that makes no sense whatsoever– but by this time of year we are lightheaded from shoveling snow, so any excuse for a party.
We’re in a weather pattern that keeps whacking us with arctic chill– it doesn’t seem likely we’ll get a warm April like last year, but the sunlight is pretty. We’re past midwinter now.
Imbolc is a white time, a time of ice and fire. In many places, snow still sheets the ground. The fire is traditional: Europe observes this day, February 2, the Christian Candlemas, with candlelight processions, parades that go back to ancient torchlight ceremonies for purifying and reviving the fields at early sowing, according to Funk and Wagnall’s Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend. At Candlemas, the people of ancient Europe made candles for the coming year, having saved the fat from meat eaten through the winter. Mexico, too, observes February 2, the Aztec New Year, with renewed fires and a festival that echoes agricultural rituals of early spring.
At Imbolc, the earth begins to wake from winter sleep. As Starhawk writes in The Spiral Dance, at Imbolc “what was born at the Solstice begins to manifest, and we who were midwives to the infant year now see the Child Sun grow strong as the days grow visibly longer.” At night the Wild Moon shines, illuminating the earth’s initial quickening. Seeds sown in autumn begin to stir; nature is potential waiting to be fulfilled. The Goddess too is changing: from crone to maiden, from winter to spring.
I like a holiday that works from the spiritual and the scientific. You don’t have to have faith that the Earth begins to tilt toward the Sun, or that the days will get longer and brighter. It’s traditional to start new projects this time of year, and in harmony with nature. We have more snow on the way, but underground the seeds and roots are waiting for their turn.