Why to raise a toast at 6:20 p.m. — and other ways to mark today's winter solstice
The holidays can be hectic, but the winter solstice is an age-old excuse for a rest
Between last-minute mall trips, overstimulated kids and lingering, eggnog-flavoured hangovers — the lead-up to the holidays can be a lot to take.
Happily, the winter solstice on Dec. 21 is a time-honoured excuse for rest and quiet contemplation.
The longest night of the year, called Yule or Yuletide by ancient Germanic peoples, was an occasion for storytelling, drinking by the hearth and lighting candles and fires to keep the darkness at bay.
New Brunswickers will see just 8½ hours of daylight on Dec. 21 — the least amount of the entire year (or, to put things in perspective, about six hours and 46 minutes less than on the day of the summer solstice in June.)
The solstice is a perfect excuse to spend a quiet Friday evening at home — and to reflect on the ancient traditions associated with the first day of winter.
Raise a toast at 6:20 p.m.
In Atlantic Canada, the moment of the solstice happens at about 6:20 p.m., or 6:52 p.m. in Newfoundland.
That's when the sun is directly over the Tropic of Capricorn, and the Earth is "tilted to its orbit by 23.5 degrees off the vertical," said Curt Nason, president of the Saint John Astronomy Club — when it's least inclined toward the sun.
"On the first day of winter, the sunlight is directly onto the southern hemisphere and we are just getting a very shallow angle of sunlight — so it has the least amount of heat," he said.
In ancient times, when people "lived, breathed and worked by the setting and rising of the sun," the solstice represented a departure from the rhythms of daily labour, according to Sarah Lady Rose, president of the United Pagan Collective and the co-owner of Mystic Moons Books & Brews in Moncton.
In ancient times, cattle were frequently slaughtered around the time of the solstice so that farmers wouldn't be burdened with caring for them during the winter — ensuring a supply of red meat for feasting.
It was also a time when the majority of wine and beer that had been made during the year was fermented and ready for drinking, making it a perfect time to "raise a toast to the ancestors," she said.
Many modern Christmas traditions originate from ancient celebrations of Yule, including "trimming of the tree, ornaments, [and] lights," Rose said.
"In ancient times, our ancestors believed at this time of the year negative spirits would try to come into the warmth of the home."
"By putting lights in the window, or putting lights on the tree, it would keep the negative spirits at bay."
Bringing greenery into the home — such as a Christmas tree, or boughs of holly, ivy or mistletoe — originated as a symbol of fertility and of the approach of new life in the darkness of winter.
Hags, Holly King
The solstice was also time to "tell the legends of what is up there in the stars and how that relates with nature," according to Nason.
"Those long, dark nights were a time for storytelling."
In Scottish mythology, legend held the cold months of the year were ruled by the Cailleach Bheur: "the Queen of the Winter, often depicted as a hag," Rose said.
"At this time of the year, the earth is dying, and she brings about the storms, walking across the land wreaking havoc behind her."
In the ancient tradition of Ireland and Britain, the winter solstice was an epic battle between the Holly King — a male Earth deity who ruled the darker, colder half of the year — and the Oak King, whose power was at its zenith during the warmer, summer months.
"At the solstices, they will come to battle," Rose said. "One of them loses, and the other one takes over for that part of the year. In the summer solstice, they duke it out again."
Happily, there's a more tangible bright side to the longest, darkest night of the year.
After the solstice, the days will gradually get longer as the Northern Hemisphere turns its back on winter — and the Earth's axial tilt moves back toward the sun.
In the meantime, Nason said, the winter solstice is "a good excuse to go out and have a beer at that time — or several."
More important, it's a time to "celebrate, come together and give thanks," said Rose, who adds that Wiccan and pagan groups in Moncton, Fredericton, Saint John and Halifax have planned public and private events to observe the solstice.
"The winter solstice is a symbol of the sun being reborn — and spring is coming."