Winterdance:Traditions of the Winter Solstice

3000 years ago, the early Celts were building great outdoor stone temples across the British Isles, such as Stonehenge in the southwestof England, and Newgrange in Ireland.  All of these colossal monuments have one thing in common, a shaft of light shines into the heart of the structure at the dawn of the Midwinter Solstice.  The word solstice means “sun stands still,” and the ancient Celtic world held its breath to wait for the sun to return and bring back its light and warmth.

We still mark the darkness of Midwinter with customs that descend from the ancient Celts, even if we don’t recognize them in their present day garb.  One of the most important elements of the Midwinter tradition is the Yule Log.  The Druids burned a special log at the Solstice, which burned (or smoldered!) for 12 days, starting on the Solstice, marking the celebration period for the return of the sun.  A piece of it was saved for next year’s fire, to ensure good luck and abundant crops the following year. Their descendants kept up this custom by burning their own Yule Logs, searched for and brought into the house with much ceremony.  After the sun went down, the log was lighted in the hearth with libations—of both the sacred and profane type!  The 12 day period of Midwinter feasting and relaxing was filled with storytelling, music, dancing, and enjoying the company of family and community.  They also had time for quiet reflection on the past year, and played games of divination to see what the new year would hold.  In our modern world, where we do not defer to the cold and dark of the winter season, or to pretty much anything that may try to stop us from working, getting, and spending, we think of the 12 Days of Christmas only as the title of a fanciful song.  To ancient peoples, the weather of those 12 days provided an enforced time of rest and celebration, when they could enjoy the turning of the wheel of the year, when they did not have to shoulder their burdens.

Examining the still popular 17th century carol, The Holly and the Ivy, can give us more clues to the evolution of the Solstice holiday.  While most of the song is full of Christian imagery about the holly berries and Christ’s blood, or Jesus’ purity, white as snow, the first stanza holds remnants of an older story:

The holly and the ivy,
When they are both full grown
Of all the trees that are in the wood
The holly bears the crown.

This puzzling verse makes no sense within the context of the song;  there is never another mention of the Ivy, and it’s not a tree, anyway.  But using Celtic stories to tease out this two-part riddle, we can see the origins of some of our modern holiday traditions.

A much older, pagan version of the song, The Contest of the Holly and the Ivy, uses the two plants as symbols for a contest between men and women:  man is represented by the prickly, more aggressive holly tree, and woman appears as the softer, feminine ivy, which wraps itself around the holly tree.  To the Celts, the turning of the seasons needed the balance of the qualities represented by the winterdance of these two partner plants.  Both of them were evergreens whose berries appear in winter, and we can understand how the Celts would view their vitality against a backdrop of the bare trees which had gone dormant. They brought these living decorations into their homes as a reminder of the fertility of nature in spite of harsh conditions, and the promise of the return of the light of the sun.  In the same way, we decorate our winter environment with vibrant lights and greenery, maybe not quite consciously, but somehow responding to the same impulses that earlier peoples did.

But the idea of the Holly wearing the crown requires another explanation.  The primary story of the Solstices is that of an ongoing choreographed competition between the Kings of the opposite seasons, the Holly King of the winter, and the Oak King of the summer.  At the Solstices, they vie for supremacy, and in the winter, the Holly is the King, his bright red berries shining in the dark landscape. His strong and well defended green leaves and red as blood berries are powerful symbols of life in the bleak midwinter, especially next to the vulnerable Oak King, who appears lifeless and naked without his abundant summer crown of greenery.  But on this shortest, but most magical day of the year, nature’s miracle takes place, the Summer King is born again.  Although just an acorn, a promise, of his future glory, he will grow stronger and greener with every day of waxing sunshine.  The older version of the song points us to the meaning that has been lost:

Oh, the rising of the sun
And the running of the deer
The shining of the winter stars
As the longer days draw near.

Bringing the seasonal symbolism back into the Christmas carol shows a wonderful evolution of the mythology that opens itself up for us when we go beneath the surface.  The story of the ancient Oak King, born on Midwinter under the shining star of hope, the promise of light returning to the world, is fused with the symbolism of the child born under the Christmas star.  And the Holly King’s affirmation of life appears in the jollity and generosity of Santa Claus.

The older celebrations and beliefs of the Celtic Yuletide tradition are not lost, just transformed into customs which can fit our busy and productive schedules.  We can enjoy them as such and still be filled with the Solstice spirit.  We can also look a little deeper into the history and meaning behind these customs to help us have a more profound experience with the changing seasons and our natural environment.

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