Article Written by: Caleb Kouns
As the days shorten and the temperature slowly and steadily declines, we begin to feel the crisp, rimy fingers of the winter season creep into our bones. For many of us, the arrival of short, cold days heralds the coming of the winter holiday season. Families and friends will connect and bread will be broken; homes will get decorated and gifts will be exchanged; in anticipation of a new year, the past year will be reflected on and resolutions will be made for the one to come. For those brief couple of weeks, we all slow down a little and come together to celebrate. Most of us, however, don’t stop to reflect on why we’re celebrating. It’s just something that we do once a year, and it’s nice to not have to go into the office for a day or two.
The reality is that we humans have been celebrating the depths of winter for much, much longer than any of the holidays you might be familiar with. More specifically, it is the winter solstice or the shortest day of the year, that has been celebrated across cultures for thousands of years. The word solstice is derived from the Latin sol (“sun”) and sister (“to stand still”), and has long been revered as a time of rebirth and renewal. It is the first true day of winter, the day that marks the start of a new solar cycle when the sun begins to once again build strength.
Not so long ago, people everywhere had a much deeper connection to the earth and her cycles and held a deep reverence for the turning of the seasons. It is not just the solar cycle that begins anew in the depths of winter, but for people living off and with the land, people deeply connected to the earth, the solstice marks the end of harvest and the completion of planting for the next season, a time of rest and reflection. The solstice was observed in the Roman Empire during Saturnalia, an ancient celebration dedicated to Saturn, the god of agriculture and time. The Chinese celebrate Dhong Zi (which means “winter arrives”) by coming together to reflect on the year that has passed and to share good wishes for the year to come. During Shab-e Yalda (which translates to “night of birth”), Iranians celebrate the triumph of Mithra the sun god over darkness. Traditionally, people gather together to protect each other from the darkness, burning fires to light their way through the darkness. During Inti Raymi, indigenous Peruvians would honor the sun god Inti with days of fasting before welcoming the new sun on the day of the solstice. For the Zuni, the indigenous people of what is now western New Mexico, the solstice is marked by a ceremonial dance called the Shalako. Preceded by several days of fasting and prayer, the sun priest announces the exact moment of itiwanna, or the rebirth of the sun, and with that four days of dancing and celebrating the yearly cycle begins.
Each of these traditional celebrations is deeply rooted in the natural cycles of the earth, which ancient people were inextricably connected to. Sacred practices and celebrations were built around the turning of the seasons and the ebb and flow of light and dark, warmth and cold, feast and famine. We today, especially in the urban west, have become unfortunately disconnected from the natural cycles of our planet home, allowing our gratitude for everything that we’ve been gifted by our mother to wane and diffuse. Many of us, however, feel a longing for something we once had, something ancient and true, a connection to the natural and beautiful balance of death and rebirth. That which was sacred has been supplanted by the thin gruel of commercialized holidays, and we feel that something is missing, without any real knowledge of what is missing, or why. Perhaps this year is an invitation to look a little closer at what our celebrations are, and why they’re important to us.
Though our connection to these rituals and celebrations has changed over the generations, our human desire to revere the sacred wherever we see it has not. While we no longer flow in harmony with the cycles of the seasons, our hearts and our spirits still pulse to these rhythms. How can we begin to reintroduce a sense of the sacred into our daily lives and practices? Most of us observe modern western holidays by rote, giving gifts, and cooking the food without ever giving thought to the meaning behind the celebration. There is an opportunity in this, to cultivate deeper meaning in the celebrations that we participate in, and in turn growing a deeper connection to ourselves and each other. There is sacred power everywhere, in everything, and the desire to recognize and celebrate it is a gift and a legacy handed down to us from our ancestors who were truly in sync with the tempo of the earth and cosmos. Welcoming and cultivating the sacred in our hearts and communities is not just a once-a-year event, it’s a way of living. So, as we sink deeper into winter this year, and inexorably approach the death of last year’s sun and the birth of a new solar cycle, the Congregation is holding a special two-week ritual that takes a moment to reflect on what is meaningful to you, and why. Where do you see the sacred in yourself, in your community, and in the world? Our hope is that you will take these feelings and ideas and make them into seeds to be planted in the winter soil of your minds and hearts. And as the solstice unfolds and we welcome a reborn sun to nourish us, who knows what sacred growth might unfold in our lives in the year to come?