Why We Honor the Sun’s Return at Midwinter
Since ancient times, humans have watched the earth revolve around the sun. Since the dawn of time, we have traversed this path and watched in awe as the sun has ebbed and flowed throughout the seasons. The longest night of the year is the winter solstice — the pivotal day when the sun shifts and begins to journey back towards the earth. Ancient and modern people honor the sun’s return at the midwinter by celebrating and rejoicing in its return. Warmer days are ahead, and the earth will soon begin to awake as the animals come out of hibernation, and tiny seedlings sprout once again. As the warmth increases, animals will become abundant and lush plant life will cover the ground.
In the northern hemisphere, the winter solstice occurs on the 21st of December, while in the southern hemisphere, it falls on the 21st of June. As our planet spins through the galaxy, this day marks the beginning of the earth’s transition. From the summer solstice to the winter solstice, the earth’s axis tilts away from the sun (northern hemisphere), which causes the nights to lengthen until we reach the longest night, the darkest day of the year*. This day is midwinter, often referred to as Yule, where the sun reaches its most significant distance from the equatorial plane. As humans, our innate, inner connection with Mother Earth is triggered as we instinctively know that change is happening all around us.
This is opposite for those folks in the southern hemisphere as the earth tilts towards the sun (southern hemisphere) from the summer solstice to winter solstice and then away from the sun from the winter solstice to the summer solstice.
Yule is the fulcrum of the balance between dark and light. After the 21st of December, the energy of the earth tips towards the sun as the axis begins to tilt once again slowly. The earth has performed this dance for eons, and she will continue her undisturbed flow through the galaxy with her partner the sun. As the days begin to grow again, the dormant earth will spring back to life with the promise of warmth and the liveliness of spring.
Yule is a celebration to honor the return on the sun by pushing away the darkness and celebrating the return of the light. Yule is a festival of fire and light. Celebrations of light are seen in many different cultural traditions: Hanukkah (Judaism), Christmas (Christians), and Diwali (Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism) are just a few! Each unique cultural tradition incorporates fire or light in their ceremony and celebration. Whether it’s through a menorah or a simple backyard bonfire or the lights on a tree, light is celebrated along with good triumphing over its adversary. These traditions have long-standing roots in social practice. The ancient Romans celebrated Saturnalia, where they exchanged gifts and closed businesses on the winter solstice, while the Persian Mithraists believed their Sun God was born on this day and conquered the darkness. The Goddess Lucina, in Sweden, is celebrated in December for bringing back the light, and bonfires were also lit to honor Odin and Thor. During modern celebrations of Yule, many pagans light candles, bonfires, and individual Yule logs as a physical representation of the return of the sun. The light of the flame represents the power and vitality of the sun captured in a small quantity.
But in some traditions, the sun can not return on his own and must have help. Participants in the ritual are asked to help the sun on his return journey from being held captive (or is exhausted) by the darkness. He needs help and strength to make it through the difficult journey and shine once again down upon the earth.
It is a time when Mother Earth gives birth to the new Sun King representing the sparks of hope for the new year. In Wiccan traditions, it is when the Moon Goddess is in her darkest aspect and calls back her Sun God. She simultaneously gives birth to her Son-Lover that will re-fertilize the land through his warmth and fertility. Yule is a celebration of the Goddess, and God reuniting as the Goddess transforms from the Crone to Child. In some other Wiccan traditions, the Oak King rules as the Horned God from Midwinter through Midsummer and the Holly King rules from Midsummer to Midwinter. Upon each transition (the solstice), the king’s battle to see who will reign supreme. The conflict and subsequent changing of the kings represent the annual, seasonal changes on earth.
Not only do we share stories and light fires to honor the return of the sun, but we also decorate our homes and alters to celebrate. Many people place red, green, or white candles around their homes and light them in the evening. Wreaths or garlands of holly are hung on doors or over mantles. They are often adorned with nuts, berries, or oranges. The colors red (sun, Holly King) and green (earth, Oak King) are used to decorate anything from tablecloths to cookies. Adorn the altar with colors of the season, items that represent the sun and warmth, and beautiful greenery. Consider making your decorations using nuts, berries, and fruit for a deeper connection to this ancient celebration of the sun.
While it is important to celebrate the return of the light during midwinter, it is also a time to reflect on the cold and dark. All creatures need a quiet time of darkness to regather their strength, contemplate the projects and events from the previous year, and find inner peace in their darkness. So while we honor the return of the sun, we also take time to reflect inwards during midwinter.
Midwinter celebrations all over the earth honor the return of the sun, which brings with it renewed life and hope. Throughout time we have celebrated solar deities like Ra, Apollo, Amaterasu, and Helios. The heavenly dance between the sun and earth will continue to transform our planet from warmth and light to cold and dark.