Welcome The Winter Solstice

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Today is the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, marking the shortest daylight period and longest night of the year.

At 12:11 p.m. EST on December 21, the sun appears directly overhead along the Tropic of Capricorn, at 23.5 degrees south latitude. With the Earth’s north pole at its maximum tilt from the sun, locations north of the equator see the sun follow its lowest and shortest arc across the southern sky. For the next six months, the days again grow longer as the sun spends more time above the horizon.

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The December solstice has influenced the lives of many people over the centuries, particularly through art, literature, mythology and religion. 

In the northern hemisphere, the December solstice occurs during the coldest season of the year. Although winter was regarded as the season of dormancy, darkness and cold, the coming of lighter days after the winter solstice brought on a more festive mood. To many people, this return of the light was a reason to celebrate that nature’s cycle was continuing.

In modern times Christians all over the world celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ on Christmas, which falls on December 25. However, it is believed that this date was chosen to offset pagan celebrations of Saturnalia and Natalis Invicti. Some believe that celebrating the birth of the “true light of the world” was set in synchronization with the December solstice because from that point onwards, the days began to have more daylight in the northern hemisphere.

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Christmas is also referred to as Yule, which may have derived from the Norse word jól, referring to the pre-Christian winter solstice festival. Yule is also known as Alban Arthan and was one of the “Lesser Sabbats” of the Wiccan year in a time when ancient believers celebrated the rebirth of the Sun God and days with more light. This took place annually around the time of the December solstice and lasted for 12 days. The Lesser Sabbats fall on the solstices and equinoxes.

The Feast of Juul was a pre-Christian festival observed in Scandinavia at the time of the December solstice. Fires were lit to symbolize the heat, light and life-giving properties of the returning sun. A Yule or Juul log was brought in and burned on the hearth in honor of the Scandinavian god Thor.

yule log

A piece of the log was kept as both a token of good luck and as kindling for the following year’s log. In England, Germany, France and other European countries, the Yule log was burned until nothing but ash remained. The ashes were then collected and either strewn on the fields as fertilizer every night until Twelfth Night or kept as a charm and or as medicine.

French peasants believed that if the ashes were kept under the bed, they would protect the house against thunder and lightning. The present-day custom of lighting a Yule log at Christmas is believed to have originated in the bonfires associated with the feast of Juul.

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In Ancient Rome the winter (December) solstice festival Saturnalia began on December 17 and lasted for seven days. It was held to honor Saturn, the father of the gods and was characterized by the suspension of discipline and reversal of the usual order. Grudges and quarrels were forgotten while businesses, courts and schools were closed. Wars were interrupted or postponed and slaves were served by their masters. Masquerades often occurred during this time.

It was traditional to offer gifts of imitation fruit (a symbol of fertility), dolls (symbolic of the custom of human sacrifice), and candles (reminiscent of the bonfires traditionally associated with pagan solstice celebrations). A mock king was chosen, usually from a group of slaves or criminals, and although he was permitted to behave in an unrestrained manner for seven days of the festival, he was usually killed at the end. The Saturnalia eventually degenerated into a week-long spree of debauchery and crime – giving rise to the modern use of the tern saturnalia, meaning a period of unrestrained license and revelry.

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In Poland the ancient December solstice observance prior to Christianity involved people showing forgiveness and sharing food. It was a tradition that can still be seen in what is known as Gody. In the northwestern corner of Pakistan, a festival called Chaomos, takes place among the Kalasha or Kalash Kafir people. It lasts for at least seven days, including the day of the December solstice. It involves ritual baths as part of a purification process, as well as singing and chanting, a torchlight procession, dancing, bonfires and festive eating.

Many Christians celebrate St Thomas’ Day in honor of St Thomas the Apostle on December 21. In Guatemala on this day, Mayan Indians honor the sun god they worshipped long before they became Christians with a dangerous ritual known as the polo voladore, or “flying pole dance”. Three men climb on top of a 50-foot pole. As one of them beats a drum and plays a flute, the other two men wind a rope attached to the pole around one foot and jump. If they land on their feet, it is believed that the sun god will be pleased and that the days will start getting longer. Some churches celebrate St Thomas’ Day on other days in the year.

The ancient Incas celebrated a special festival to honor the sun god at the time of the December solstice. In the 16th century ceremonies were banned by the Roman Catholics in their bid to convert the Inca people to Christianity. A local group of Quecia Indians in Cusco, Peru, revived the festival in the 1950s. It is now a major festival that begins in Cusco and proceeds to an ancient amphitheater a few miles away.

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The Winter Solstice And The Bees

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The Winter Solstice is the real beginning of the cycle of the New Year.

It marks the shortest day and longest night of the year, when the sun’s daily maximum elevation in the sky is the lowest.

The Solstice officially arrived at the same instant for all of us on Earth – 11:12 UTC – but our clocks say different times due to varying time zones.

This year the Winter Solstice in Cincinnati happened this morning at 6:12 a.m. EST.

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After the Winter Solstice the days gradually get longer until spring season arrives. It’s  important to honey bees and how they manage their hive throughout the winter.

Within the darkness of the hive, unable to see that the light lasts a bit longer each day, the Queen Bee senses that the Solstice has arrived. The Winter Solstice is one of the first signs to her that it is time to take up one of the survival tasks of the hive: to begin rearing additional young bees.

Shortly after the Winter Solstice, maybe the next day, maybe several weeks later, the colony raises the core temperature of the winter cluster to about 95*F, the optimal temperature for rearing new bees.

When the colony reaches the desired core temperature the Queen will lay a small patch of brood, using the cells that were emptied of their honey during the preceding weeks of cold.

At first, the amount of brood rearing is small, less than 100 cells. However, as the spring approaches, and the first flowers begin to blossom, the Queen will begin rearing bees at a much higher rate.

The process is slow at first because rearing bees during the winter and keeping the brood nest at 95*F consumes a lot of extra winter stores, more so than if the bees were just clustered together at a cooler 75*F temperature.

They keep warm in the same way we do. They shiver.

Winter Cluster

Winter Cluster

In cold weather, the bees huddle tightly together. Bees on the outside of the cluster form an insulating shell while bees in the center of the cluster generate heat by shivering their flight muscles.

By eating honey (a high-energy food) the bees can generate just over 100*F in their flight muscles. At the center of the cluster is the Queen, where she remains warm and protected from the cold winter air. As bees on the outside chill, they rotate to the center of the cluster.

The bees are starting their cycle of life once more.  Happy Winter Solstice!

Christmas bees

Holidays With Honey – The Winter Solstice Cocktail

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The pomegranate has been used throughout history and in almost every religion as a symbol of humanity’s most fundamental beliefs and desires, including life and death, rebirth and eternal life, fertility and marriage, abundance and prosperity. Almost every aspect of the pomegranate has come to symbolize something . . . its shape, color, seeds, juice.

It’s very fitting that the Winter Solstice cocktail should feature pomegranate juice.

Ingredients

2 oz vodka

3/4 oz fresh lemon juice

1/2 oz pomegranate juice

1 oz honey

Orange wedge

Directions

Add vodka, lemon juice, pomegranate juice, and honey to a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake and strain into a short or highball glass with ice. Garnish with an orange wedge. Drink up and repeat!

Ghost Stories For Christmas, Part I

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Although it is not widely known in modern times, the Winter Solstice has long been associated with ghosts and spirits both in Pagan as well as Christian Traditions. Beginning the first of December, there are spirits behind every door and in every closet as well as dancing in the flames of candles and hearth-fires.

We are all familiar with Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, but we sometimes forget that it’s a ghost story, first and foremost.  Dickens likely got his some of his inspiration from the Celtic mysticism & mythology associated with the Winter Solstice (21 December).

This festival of the Winter Solstice – called Alban Arthuan in Druidic traditions – has long been thought of as a time of death & rebirth when Nature’s innate powers and our own souls are renewed. This event – which marks the moment in the spiral of earthen time when the Old Sun dies (at dusk on the 21st of December) and when the Sun of the New Year is born (at dawn on the 22nd of December) – frames the longest night of the year. The birth of New Sun is thought to revivify the aura of the Earth in mystical ways, giving a new ‘lease on life’ to spirits and souls of the dead.

As such, Yule is probably the second most haunted time of the year, Samhain or Halloween being the first. The haunting begins in early December, as if in anticipation of the rebirth of the Sun’s powers. Spirits become more animated in the days leading up to Alban Arthuan (from the 6th to the 20th of December).

Who are the spirits and what is the ‘modus operandi’ of the ghosts that come to our abodes and haunt the landscapes of our inner and outer worlds at this mysterious time of the year?

This haunting is not of the same character as that which happens during the Season of Samhain; i.e., it is not a general ‘walking of the dead’ or even a general return of any and all ancestors & relatives, friends & lovers from beyond the veil. The spirits that come out during the Yule are often connected in one way or another to the main poetic theme of the death & rebirth of the Sun.

One recurrent spectral visitor is The Wandering Stranger, also called the “Mysterious Stranger” and “The Unexpected Guest.” This spirit is a manifestation of ‘need’ in the world. It usually comes to haunt us in the guise of a hard-working middle-aged man or woman not quite in great health, perhaps, as some difficulty has overtaken them in life.

To dream of encountering the Wandering Stranger out of doors, perhaps along an open road, is said to signify that someone needs shelter. One response to this visitation is to do something toward the sheltering of homeless people in your area. To dream of the Wandering Stranger coming to your door may signify that you need to engage more heartily in acts of hospitality (perhaps by hosting a meal) as the Yuletide unfolds.

Sometimes the Wandering Stranger is symbolic of the mysterious presence of “the divine” in the world with us, rather than signifying ‘need’ or ‘loss.’ In this guise, the Wandering Stranger is said to come to people who need inspiration to open up to wider mystical horizons at the tides of Winter’s Solstice.

In ancient Celtic times it was said that gods & goddesses would visit mortals at crucial crossroads of the year. One of the Faeryfolk might also come to visit mortals unawares, as might the local chieftain, a Druid or a Gwrach (“wise woman”; the counterpart of a Druid). To be so visited was to be honored, and so it was thought that one must be ready, at all times – according to Celtic codes of hospitality – to receive guests at one’s door, whether lowly or grand.

When at home at night during the Yule (13 – 25 December), listen for strange knocks at the door; especially during storms or windy weather. The door-latch may rattle, and you think you hear a voice – not a threatening one; perhaps just a murmur or a word – but when you go to the door, there is no one there! In Celtic mysticism this is said to indicate the coming of the Mysterious Stranger. If it happens twice or thrice, you might invite the invisible presence into your abode, saying, “May the gods who sent you come and bless this hearth!” Sometimes a kind of strange ‘rapping’ may be heard at a windowpane on dark Yuletide nights. If you hear it – especially at a window above ground level – throw open the sash and allow the night air to flood briefly into your room. Say as you do so, “May the Mysterious Stranger come in and warm herself/himself at our hearth.”

If you are out walking along a lone and rustic road or wood path at any time during the Yule – but especially at dusk or dawn – keep your eyes open for any sign of a strange visage or ‘ghost’ as you go along your chosen course, as the Mysterious Stranger is wont to appear briefly to travelers during the Yule, awakening them to supernatural possibilities in the mundane rounds of daily life. The Stranger sometimes comes and appears, just briefly, along a path or road you are taking, perhaps standing by a tall Oak or Willow. Yet when you turn to look, there is no one there! If this happens, say, “Hail, Mysterious One, I bless your journey; prosper mine in return.” The appearance of the Mysterious Stranger is thought to signify the presence of divine beings (e.g., gods & goddesses) in your vicinity. By hailing the Stranger, you may address deities in their nearness without danger of affronting them.

All during the Yuletide Season, a ‘spirit’ is growing; an aura of magic and mystery, that crescendos on the 21st of December and then maintains a climactic intensity until after midnight on 24 December; the night called Matrum Noctem (“The Night of the Great Mother”). This “spirit” is collectively called the Spirit of Yule; a term that applies to the particular anima loci of this sacred time of the earthen year. “The Spirit of Yule” is a metaphor for the Presence of Mystery among us – or perhaps a symbol of the essence of the Universe itself – becoming present to us in our devout earthen sojourns near the Hearth and the Yule Tree as the Old Sun’s powers wane.

A rush of spiritual energy is released at the birth of New Sun at dawn on the 22nd of December, as a result of which it is believed spirits & ghosts become much more active for the next few days, appearing to mortals more frequently than they did before Alban Arthuan . It is during these days that the ghosts of relatives and ancestors, lovers and friends usually come visiting. Then – beginning on the 26th of December – all of these discarnates will begin to grow quiet and then depart, going back beyond the veil.