B.B. Boudreau

Novelist | Singer

Winter’s Door

Here we are at Winter’s Door once again. Little surprises like an extreme temperature plunge are certainties. The earth itself has cooled, having slowly given up its summer radiant heat through long chilly nights. The ocean surrounding our Gloucester island home is chilling as well, though it’s still acting as a blanket to insulate us from the more frigid temps.

Grey envelopes our skies, our excursions to the outdoors, our thoughts and even our dreams in winter. The magical angle of the winter sun brings a golden haze, casting long skinny shadows even at noon. The sunshine is hot in the lee from the perpetual north wind, but this is still the season of the blues. No wonder we have holidays and celebrations sprinkled throughout the dive toward winter. This cooling down period allows us the perfect environment for self-reflection and examination. We begin to reminisce about the year even though we are not yet at its end. Holidays loom ahead with their own brand of built-in stress. Thank goodness for the internet, which rescues me from crowded stores that make me want to flee for the exits. Though “winter” won’t arrive yet until after the New Year with the snow and icy wind, the long slide through fall into the holiday season provides plenty of prep time to adjust to the big chill of our island.

Among the holiday celebrations we cram into our calendars, one of the most significant is the Winter Solstice. In our modern “connected” existence, we are sheltered from the harsh reality that terrified northern residents years ago, when light, warmth and its benevolent growing season dictated their very lives. Several years ago, I started a program to celebrate the solstice and its ancient significance at Harold Parker State Forest in North Andover, MA. Though this is done in my role as the coordinator of programming for Massachusetts State Parks, it primarily fills a primordial desire for the return of warm weather, green plants and life-giving sunshine. At this stage in our human evolution on Planet Earth, winter is a mere inconvenience for many northern residents. For those living at a subsistence level hundreds of years ago, winter was a frightening time, and warm weather and a growing season was paramount to their survival. One failed crop season could mean the end of their existence. Winter was dark, cold and barren.

Even thousands of years ago, the winter solstice was certainly well known as the shortest day of the year, and became a major celebration in northern climes. Following is a list of some of them, though undoubtedly, there are many more:

  • Shab-e Yalda (“Night of Birth”):“Yalda night” is an Iranian festival celebrating the longest night of the year. Ancient Zoroastrian practiced traditions to protect people from evil spirits that came at night. Iranians the world over celebrate the defeat of darkness by the sun god Mithra. People band together to protect themselves from evil, burn fires to light their way through the dark night. Some stay awake all night to cheer the sunrise, drive out evil and rejoice at the arrival of goodness.
  • Ancient Romans enjoyed a weeklong celebration known as the Feast of Saturnalia in honor of the god Saturn, god of agriculture. In this hedonistic celebration, slaves became masters and the peasants were in command. Upper classes celebrated the birthday of Mithra, an ancient Persian god of light. Later in Roman Empire history, Mithra combined with Sol Invictus, god of the “unconquered sun.”
  • Toji:In Japan, the winter solstice starts the new year with health and good luck and is particularly sacred for farmers who await the return of a sun to nourish crops after the long, cold winter. People light huge bonfires to encourage the sun’s return; massive bonfires burn on Mount Fuji for the winter solstice
  • Scandinavian Norsemen celebrated Yule from the winter solstice through January.

In acknowledgement of the sun’s return, the men carted large logs home. These became known as Yule logs. One end of these logs was set afire, and people would feast until the log burned out, sometimes taking as many as 12 days.

  • Dong Zhi (“Winter Arrives”) is the Chinese celebration of the winter solstice, Dong Zhi salutes the return of longer days and increasing positive energy in the coming year. They honor the past year and share good wishes for the year to come.
  • The Inca Empire honored the sun god Inti at a celebration called Inti Raymi (“sun festival” in Quechua). Their winter festival was in June (Southern Hemisphere). After a three day fast before the solstice, they waited for sunrise on a ceremonial plaza, offering cups of chichi (sacred fermented corn beer). They ignited fires using a mirror to focus the sun’s rays.
  • Lucia’s Day:The festival of lights in Scandinavia celebrates St. Lucia, an early Christian martyr, and symbol of light. Traditions include lighting fires to banish spirits during the longest, darkest night of the year.
  • Native American Traditions: The Zuni, (Native American Pueblo peoples in western New Mexico), celebrate the winter solstice as the beginning of the year and dance the ceremonial Shalako. They fast and pray, mark the rising and setting of the sun for several days before the solstice, culminating with the Pekwin, or “Sun Priest” proclaiming the exact instant of itiwanna, the renaissance of the sun, with a long, doleful appeal. This signals the beginning of celebration and dance for four days, and the yearly cycle begins anew.
  • The Hopi of Northern Arizona celebrate Soyal, the Sun Chief who declares the setting of the sun on the solstice. The ceremony continues all night, marked with fires, dancing and gifts.

 

Impressive monuments have been erected principally for the sunrise or sunset on the winter solstice, among them Stonehenge in England and Newgrange in Ireland, colossal structures requiring exacting measurements and years of work.

Amazing that all these myriad festivals, celebrations and landmarks arose independently around our earth, all in recognition of the same day. Some believe that the timing of Christmas actually began with the celebration of the winter solstice. So where does that leave us in our modern technologically-driven existence, replete with central heat, supermarkets bursting with food, water at the turn of a handle, cars with heated seats and electric lights operated by voice-activated Alexa?

Perhaps with an empty feeling. What a missed opportunity for our own spirituality. Some people are not conscious of the solstice passing, though it is announced by The Weather Channel, news and radio stations. We don’t greet each other with “Happy Solstice” like we do Christmas, New Year’s and even St. Patty’s Day.

Certainly, the solstice does not mark the sudden return of anything. Rather, we are just heading into the worst part of winter, awaiting bone-chilling wind and snow storms for the next two months. Though each day brings increasing daylight, it is barely noticeable until about the middle of January, at which time we are buried in full-on winter weather, and full days with no sun at all. Day length near the solstice increases by mere seconds, hence the meaning of the word “solstice” – or, the sun stands still. By March, day length increases by almost 3 minutes, a very noticeable difference. So is there really any cause for celebration on December 21 after all?

I think so. Ritual celebration is sadly absent from our society in general.

Our ancestors recognized the significance of the winter solstice as far back as 10,000 B.C., in the Neolithic period (the new stone age, when farming first originated), making the Winter Solstice celebration one of the oldest on Earth. Unfamiliarity with the solstice’s significance is fairly recent in human history. Despite our conveniences and protection from winter, we still owe our survival to the ability to grow plants which in turn feed every organism on earth.

This writer will celebrate the winter solstice and the return of life-giving light every year. It is the humble recognition of our vulnerability to the elements, the honor of our resilient ancestors, out-lasting winter in less fortunate living conditions, and certainly owning the awareness of what truly sustains our existence.

It is a celebratory, happy day. It is the recognition of the return of life-sustaining light. It is the end of our plunge into increasing darkness. Ancient peoples devoted entire days and even weeks to its significance. In 2017, it deserves at least one day.

 

Barbara Buls Boudreau will be hosting a public Winter Solstice Celebration on December 21 from 3:00 – 5:00 p.m. at the CCC pavilion located on Middleton Rd. in Harold Parker State Forest, North Andover, MA. Come share the fire, drink a cup of hot chocolate, and share the mystery of one of our oldest celebrations on Earth.

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