The Breaking Forth of the Light

By Cristina Smith

In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer. -Albert Camus

The Winter Solstice, which occurs on December 22nd,  is commonly thought of as the longest night of the year. It marks the peak of natural energy facilitating psychological inwardness that is available to assist deeply internal transformational processes. Picture the shifting of the season like the removing of a candle from the inside of an altar. The altar is your inner world and it is now time for the light within to break forth into the world.

Cultures globally celebrate this time of the year as the return of the light, when the sun enters the sign of Capricorn and the duration of daylight begins to increase until reaching the Spring Equinox (when the days and nights are of equal length).

No one is really sure how long ago humans recognized the Winter Solstice and began heralding it as a turning point. An utterly astounding array of ancient cultures built their greatest architectures~ tombs, temples, cairns and sacred observatories~ so that they aligned with the solstices and equinoxes. Newgrange, the beautiful megalithic site in Ireland, is a huge circular stone structure is estimated to be 5,000 years old, older by centuries than Stonehenge. It was built to receive a shaft of sunlight deep into its central chamber at dawn on solstice morning. Hundreds of other megalithic structures throughout Europe are oriented to the solstices and the equinoxes as well as sacred sites in the Americas, Asia, Indonesia, and the Middle East. Even cultures that followed a moon-based calendar seemed also to understand the importance of these sun-facing seasonal turning points.

The Mesopotamians were first, it is claimed, with a 12-day festival of renewal, designed to help the god Marduk tame the monsters of chaos for one more year.

Four thousand years ago, give or take a couple of centuries, ancient Egyptians celebrated the rebirth of the sun at this time of year. The festival lasted 12 days to reflect the 12 divisions in their solar calendar. They decorated with greenery, using palms with 12 shoots as a symbol of the completed year as the palm was thought to put forth a shoot each month.

The Egyptian and Persian traditions merged in ancient Rome in a festival called Saturnalia~ which was a really big holiday.  Everyone gave themselves up to wild joy. The halls were decked with holly branches and evergreen wreaths. People visited family and attended lavish banquets and holiday parties. Gifts of silver, candles, figurines, and sweets (often tied to evergreen wreaths) were exchanged. It was also customary to light candles and roam the streets singing holiday songs (often in the nude). The usual order of the year was suspended~ grudges and quarrels were forgotten and wars interrupted or postponed. Businesses, courts, schools were closed. A mock king -- the Lord of Misrule -- was crowned. Rich and poor were equal; slaves were served by masters and children headed the family. Cross-dressing, masquerades, and merriment of all kinds prevailed. Candles and lamps chased away the spirits of darkness.

Saturnalia began as a feast day for Saturn on December 17 and of Ops on the 19th. During the Empire, the festivals were combined to cover a full week: December 17th to 23rd. By the third century CE, there were many religions and spiritual mysteries being followed within the Roman Empire. Many, if not most, celebrated the birth of their god-man near the time of the solstice. Emperor Aurelian (270 to 275 CE) blended a number of pagan solstice celebrations of the nativity of such god-men/saviors as Apollo, Attis, Baal, Dionysus, Helios, Hercules, Horus, Mithra, Osiris, Perseus, and Theseus into a single festival called the "Birthday of the Unconquered Sun" on December 25th.

Christmas was transplanted onto Winter Solstice some 1,600 years ago, centuries before the English language emerged from its Germanic roots. Eastern churches began to celebrate Christmas after 375 CE. The church in Jerusalem began in the 7th century and Ireland started in the 5th century after which other countries followed. Many symbols and practices associated with Christmas are of pagan origin: holly, ivy, mistletoe, the Yule log, gift exchanges, the decorated evergreen tree, magical reindeer, etc. Polydor Virgil, an early British Christian, said "Dancing, masques, mummeries, stageplays, and other such Christmas disorders now in use with Christians, were derived from these Roman Saturnalian and Bacchanalian festivals; which should cause all pious Christians eternally to abominate them."

Winter Solstice celebrations are also part of the cultural heritage of Pakistan and Tibet. And in China, even though the calendar is based on the moon, the day of the solstice is called Dong Zhi, "The Arrival of Winter." The cold of winter made an excellent excuse for a feast, so that's how the Chinese observed it, with Ju Dong, "doing the winter."

The placement of Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights, is tied to both the lunar and solar calendars. It begins on the 25th of Kislev, three days before the new moon closest to the Winter Solstice. It commemorates an historic event -- the Maccabees' victory over the Greeks and the rededication of the temple at Jerusalem. But the form of this celebration, a Festival of Lights (with candles at the heart of the ritual), makes Hanukkah wonderfully compatible with other celebrations at this time of year. As a symbolic celebration of growing light and as a commemoration of spiritual rebirth, it also seems closely related to other observances.

As we move through the next quarter of the year toward the Spring Equinox, take some time to determine the light you want to emanate and begin to shine forth your intent.  That will make the planting of that intention when the Sun enters Aries more potent and likely to reach fruition.

Merry Solstice to you!


Cristina enjoys celebrating the natural holidays and is an energetic healer and Sustainable Wellness™ coach. Her website is and you may feel free to contact her at 

© 2011 Cristina Smith. All rights reserved.

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