Winter Solstice Explained: Past And Modern Traditions

Thursday is the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year, and the longest night of the year. When I come home for the holidays each year my dad routinely quizzes me on the event, so I finally decided to sit down and learn something about it, instead of just faking my way through the conversation. I found out that there has always been a Solstice, but now it is known as Christmas!

Though thousands of years have passed, the way the Solstice was traditionally celebrated is actually very much like the holiday season you experience today. Craft beer companies have taken the place of the homemade wassail that was passed out in the festively decorated neighborhood streets, and only major rituals had not survived the test of time.

The traditions most of us celebrate, like gift giving, caroling, and feasting are ancient; people have been taking part in these since Roman times. Pagans were the original practitioners of this seasonal holiday. These celebrations were later adopted by Christians and in a sense, re-branded to be more about the birth of the son of Christ vs. the birth of a new sun.

Solstice celebrations are marked by red, green and white decorations, homes featuring indoor evergreen trees, holiday songs, candle lighting, enjoying the company of family at large meals, and exchanging presents. This sounds eerily like the way my family spent Christmas, for, I don't know, my whole life? Here I am, thinking the holiday had been invented by Hallmark.

The holidays, no matter how you define them, usually feature an array of beer, wine, and spirits. Back in the day the wassail bowl was a type of spiced beer, wine and cider mixed and given away door-to-door, in a trick or treat style fashion. People toasted to good health and peace, something even the Christians who sought to overtake the holiday couldn't argue with. Craft beer companies like Oregon's Full Sail have now brought this tradition back. You've got New Belgium's Snow Day Winter Ale, and an array of other dark spiced beers that are released specifically for the holiday season.

Yet there is one pagan tradition Western society does not really carry on – a meditation on the Solstice Eve. As a mere conversation can raise the blood pressure, and most of us are going to do our share of talking this Christmas, not to mention the overeating. Oh, the overeating, I hurt just thinking about it. Meditation can relieve blood pressure, head/neck/back aches, depression, anxiety, regulate the sleep cycle and help stimulate digestive processes. If you're not sure how to started, there are some excellent YouTube videos on the subject, just search the keywords guided meditation.

A common saying is that out of the darkness comes the light. The solstice signifies the start of more sun, and less darkness, which is the reason I get all giddy inside when thinking about it. I love fresh starts, who doesn't? It is a time to reset your intentions for an upcoming year and revisit any goals needing accomplishing.

My holiday traditions, have, and always will include decorating, gift-giving, and feasting. More recently I have begun to accumulate what I thought were new traditions, of meditating and setting goals, but those are surprisingly old ones and it’s heartwarming to know that I'm not the only one who thought to practice them. Cheers!

Photo Credit: WalknBoston