The Mystery of the Winter Solstice

From “Taking Back the Holidays,” The Mountain Astrologer Dec/Jan 2007

The winter solstice is the most inscrutable juncture point of the annual cycle. But even if we don’t think of it as mysterious, even if we don’t think of it at all, we feel its power.

We are each a component part of an interconnected living system, so we can’t help but be absorbed into this immense natural drama. Its occult meaning permeates the psyche of every being alive —  even in the denatured, urban societies of the modern world.

This essay will consider that meaning.

The Wheel Turns

By mid-December, warmth and heat have been steadily ebbing in the Northern Hemisphere. Animal and plant life have slowed down, retreated underground, gone dormant. Since the beginning of time, the human mind has fashioned legends to try to come to grips with the fear provoked by this all-encompassing decline.

Take a moment to consider the implications of this idea. In every age, this time of year has inspired stories of a world-shattering death redeemed by a glorious return to life. Every epoch has solemnized the solstice with its own reverent images: of kings ritually sacrificed, of old heroes ceding the way for new ones, of miraculous pregnancies heralding a brand new cycle.

The exquisite irony of the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere is that this promised return to glory and radiance is announced by an imperceptible spark in the dark. It is at precisely the year’s darkest, deepest point that the magic turnaround occurs.

Spark in the Dark

Through experience, of course, we understand that the days will thereafter start to lengthen. But this reassurance is more theoretical than visceral, given that the switchover from decreasing to increasing light is impossible to see. The solstice moment is heralded by no dramatic contrast, no obvious signal.

All is coldness and darkness, just like the night before.

When the cycle is seen as an integral whole, this timing is revealed to be systemically perfect. But the fact that it is also utterly counter-intuitive has a meaning, too. Nature could conceivably have come up with a boldly unmistakable sign that the Sun was starting its critical return, but She did not. This makes one wonder whether the winter solstice was meant to involve a massive leap of faith.

Crisis of Faith

As this last month of the Gregorian calendar year begins, the sacred king of collective myth has left us cold and bereft after his sacrifice. But every tribe has had its elders, astronomers and story-tellers to convey the news that the Sun figure would return. Every culture has devised myths that served to instill in the populace a sense of trust. A trust strong enough to get people through the hard months still ahead.

And it may be that this trust is the key to the solstice’s esoteric meaning.

Applying this idea to the contemporary psyche might help explain the crisis of faith many of us go through at this time of year. Researchers who study the emotional vicissitudes of the annual cycle (e.g. the effects of light deprivation, cold temperatures and lack of outdoor activity) have tried to help modern thinkers make sense of the Christmas blues.

The Christmas Blues

Take this thinking a step further, and we have the astrological view: that there is something symbolically appropriate about the sense of doom many people feel around this holiday. The year is indeed dying, and on a soul level there is a need to acknowledge it.

Our rational minds know, of course, that the Sun will come back; and that in three month’s time there will be budding trees and baby birds. But our rational minds aren’t the only parts of our beings in play. The archaic layer of our psyche is left uncajoled by scientific knowledge and its guarantees. On a cellular level we are aware that a mortal drama is taking place.

And what is the point of this mortal drama? That this phase of the cycle might have a function, a psycho-spiritual raison-d’être, is hard for non-holistic thinkers to grasp. How is human consciousness served by mass existential doubt?

Only when we see Time as an ever-turning wheel can we make sense of it. Just under the surface of the holiday gaiety – rendering it a tad hysterical, in fact – is an all-encompassing awareness not only of our own personal mortality, but of the world’s mortality. And mixed in with this sobering awareness is a sense of poignant hope and faith, unique to this time of year, and the aspect of it that is rightly glorified, even in mass-produced greeting cards.

The Sun’s Rebirth

At the winter solstice all of humanity’s energies are funneled into this primal drama of the Sun/Son’s rebirth. The human race holds its collective breath, counting the days until the forces of life once again begin their ascent. The great wheel is poised at its bottommost turning point, ready to slowly wend its way back up towards the top.

It is easy to see why this annual crossroads filled ancient peoples with such awe, and infuses Christians, to this day, with such fervor. It is the universal story of Darkness turning into Light.

What is remarkable is that this tale has remained intact, with varying degrees of literalization, despite the wholesale disconnection of the modern world from natural cycles. This seems to prove as much as anything could that there are certain inborn stories deeply embedded in the human psyche; and that though astronomical events reflect these stories, they can hardly be said to cause them.

Taking back the Holidays

Many of us have come to feel that our rituals have had the numinous leached out of them by the marketplace, which has rendered them mundane and maudlin. We may have come to the dispiriting realization that the only thing connecting us to this sacred time is the calendar on the wall, or the bank being closed, or the commercials for holiday specials that start to appear on TV.

December’s transits in the sign of ritual constitute an invitation to reconnect with the aboriginal auspices of the universal holidays, and make them our own again. Those tuned into the Sagittarius archetype may feel an urge to re-sacralize those rituals that have grown stale – jettisoning some altogether, inventing new ones from scratch.

For some this may mean celebrating the divine without the involvement of a priest or a rabbi or an imam or a retail outlet. For others it may mean a new attentiveness to the patterns in the sky that map out these sacred juncture points over the course of the year.

A Hunger for the Sacred

Among those of us left cold by the bleached-out spectacles that pop culture sells us in the name of the changing seasons, a movement was bound to arise. The sign Sagittarius is a testament to the fact that human beings have always had and will always have a hunger for ritual, even in a disensouled world. To fully channel Sagittarius energy is to regain control of these once-holy days so that they will be able to do what they were designed to do: serve as markers of numinous turning-points.

And there is plenty of imagery to choose from in rewriting the sacred scripts. As descendants of the Judeo/Christian/Islamic tradition – not to mention the myriad animistic systems which pre-dated these three – we have inherited a symbolic vocabulary rich in classic rituals.

Rewriting the Rituals

Ancient solstice lore is creeping back into the public’s consciousness, inspiring curiosity about the sacred origins of such secularized cliches as the yule log and the mistletoe. Novelists and filmmakers are de-sentimentalizing the holidays of their youth, unearthing what was real about these ceremonies and daring to question the rest.

Madonna has discovered the Kabbalah. Satirist Bill Talen is spreading the gospel with his Church of Stop Shopping. Increasing numbers of meaning-seekers, in high-and low-profile ways, are re-consecrating the sacred portals. The culture wars are raging, which leaves a lot of room for unique expression.

The goal spelled out in the etymology of the word religion is that of re-linking us to the universe. From the whimsical to the profoundly solemn, new rites are being created, and ancient ones are being resurrected. On the New Moon in December, try writing yourself a new tradition. On the sacred solstice, celebrate it.

Now it’s real. And now it’s yours.