Actually it comes twice, once in midsummer, the longest day of the year, and once in midwinter, the longest night. Winter Solstice is also known as the first day of winter.
For those of us attuned to the cycles of Mother Earth, Winter Solstice is a time to celebrate the dark and the transformations that come in the dark. Many of the customs associated with Christmas and Hannukah, including candles, Yule logs, and trees decorated with lights were originally associated with Winter Solstice. The extra pounds put on during winter feasting were insulation against the cold winter nights.
Those who fear that many of the customs of the Christmas season might be pagan are right. As we learn again to honor our place within the cycles of birth, death, and regeneration, we can return these customs to their roots in the circle of life.
On the Winter Solstice, which generally comes on December 21, the days begin to get longer. This is not evident for a few weeks, as at “solstice” the sun seems to “stand still.” By mid-January it is clear. The darkness has given way to slightly longer days. However, the coldest days of winter are yet to come.
Perhaps taking a cue from Christmas celebrations of the light shining in the darkness, many contemporary pagans welcome “the return of the light” on Winter Solstice. For those who feel kinship with Mother Earth, Winter Solstice can also be a time to celebrate the darkness itself. Yet few of us know how to celebrate the dark. We don’t celebrate “the return of the dark” on Summer Solstice, so why do we focus on “the return of the light” on Winter Solstice?
In our culture, light is associated with reason, masculinity, civilization, God, and salvation, while darkness is associated with feeling, femininity, barbarism, the Devil, and hell. The metaphor of “the light shining in the darkness” has been associated with everything right and good, while the darkness has been demonized.
When women and the feminine are associated with the dark, this means that they must be mastered and controlled by men and the masculine. When races are identified as light and dark, this becomes justification for domination.
None of us have escaped this enculturation. Thus it is hard for us to think of celebrating the dark.
In the natural world, darkness and light are part of the cycles of life. We would not live without sunlight, but neither would life as we know it thrive in a world without the darkness of night. The dark of winter is a time to slow down, to sleep, to wait. Winter dark is a time of transformation: seeds collected at the end of summer must rest in a cold dark place under the earth before sprouting in spring.
This Winter Solstice, let us think about what it would mean to acknowledge the dark: to see it as one of the phases of life, of equal value with the light. As we learn to value the dark, we begin to transform the dualisms of light and darkness that have been used to oppress women, nature, and all cultural and religious “others.”
This Winter Solstice, let us embrace the dark, the time of rest before regeneration.
Carol P. Christ was born on the eve of Winter Solstice and her mother named her after the carols being sung while she was emerging from the womb. Carol is a founding mother in the study of women and religion, feminist theology, women’s spirituality, and the Goddess movement. She has been active in peace and justice movements all of her adult life. She teaches online courses in the Women’s Spirituality program at CIIS. Her books include She Who Changes and Rebirth of the Goddess and the widely used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions. One of her great joys is leading Goddess Pilgrimages to Crete through Ariadne Institute.