Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Winter Solstice & End of the Year Celebrations

The end of the year always brings a bit of reflection. We have now passed the year's winter solstice, which occurred in the Northern Hemisphere on December 22. Our planet Earth is, and all of us living in it are, moving towards perihelion when we will be closest to the Sun. But wait, that makes no sense. How come if we are closer to the sun we are in winter!? Well, that makes more sense for the Southern Hemisphere, than to us in the Northern Hemisphere. This is because the Earth's path of rotation around the sun, which is a year in our human calendars, is not a circle but instead is oblong or ellipsoid. This means that there will be times when the Earth will be closer to the Sun, and others when we are farther from the Sun, as we revolve around in our orbit around the Sun. Come January we will be in full perihelion.

During the winter solstice, the Northern Hemisphere angles away from the sun's direct rays, but the Southern Hemisphere angles towards it. The angling away from the sun gives us winter, whereas is summer in the Southern Hemisphere.

The winter solstice marks the longest night of the year, and the shortest day of the year. Right now we are experiencing earlier sunsets, longer nights, and shorter days. This will continue until de Spring. This natural astronomical shift has been a source of magical mysticism and celebration for millennia.

14th Century "Roman de Fauvel" from the Bibliotheque National de France, Paris).
It depicts a sort of feast, usually associated to the medieval Feast of the Fools.

The solstices are astronomical phenomena. They have been a source of celebration and festivities for many western cultures. Ancient civilizations have long observed these variations, many which celebrated the changes or seasons and erecting monuments to help them predict their approach. Famous examples of these are, of course, Stonehenge in Southern England, and  Machu Picchu in Peru.

Intihuatana stone, in Machu Picchu. A calendar stone atop the ruins of Machu Picchu, rediscovered by Hiram Bingham in 1911.

These festivities we still celebrate today but under different names. The pagan Anglo-Saxons celebrated Modraniht around December 25, other celebrated Yule (more common among the Wiccans of today), and the Romans had Saturnalia. Roman Saturnalia  was a celebration around all the end of the year in honor of the god Saturn. During the medieval period, Saturnalia was known by Christians as the Feast of Fools of Festum Factuorum, and the Yule Log celebrations, many which were altogether later adopted and modified into our modern Christmas.

Yule Log illustration in Robert Chambers 1864 edition of Books of Days, pg. 734. Wikipedia commons.

On that note, happy end of the year festivities, whichever way you may call them. May the new year bring you happiness and health.

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