Midwinter / Winter Solstice
The focus of a midwinter festival is the longest night. It signals the end of one year and with the rising of the sun after the longest night, the start of a new year with the lengthening days. It’s become quite common in Australia to celebrate the end of the solar year with a community lantern parade -- in Geelong organised by the Geelong West Neighborhood House -- but less people are keen to welcome the sun return at dawn.
This is my favorite winter solstice song, Sol Invictus by Thea Gilmore. The photo used in this video is the sun rising over Clonmacnoise, Ireland, with its 12th century round towers and even older Celtic crosses. One of the oldest crosses there features an image of Cernunnos, the Celtic god of hunting and fertility, a solar god who is reborn with the Midwinter rising sun. The rebirth of the resurrected god at the Winter Solstice, as also seen in the stories of ancient Gods, Baal, Attis, Thor, Tammuz, Osiris, Mithras and Jesus.
European gardens and farms flourish in Australia as do many Northern Hemisphere cultural traditions. For better or worse they have been adopted wholesale in this country. Relatively recently non-indigenous Australians have sought to understand and incorporate a greater awareness of an Australian ‘spirit of place’ in seasonal festivals, acknowledging our unique flora and fauna, and new understanding of the elements here, such as the role of fire in regenerating vegetation. The life cycles and seasons of annuals and deciduous plants are familiar but the Wiccan story of the Oak King and the Holly King, deciduous and evergreen forces alternately ruling the forests, strikes an odd note here. Most Australian native trees are evergreen, while almost all the deciduous trees in Australia are from imported stock. Justice would have us acknowledge Australia’s Indigenous peoples as the traditional owners of these lands it is perhaps best to focus on other winter solstice traditions.
In my garden a few tattered autumn leaves still hang from the crab apple and peach trees like long forgotten decorations. The oxalis in exuberant, smothering the strawberry and vegetable beds while the nasturtiums look for something to climb. Bright bulbous lemons continue to mature on the tree while flat leaf parsley bunches up enthusiastically. There are even a few red stragglers on the withered tomato vines. It must be tabouli season. Here and there a deadly nightshade plant has snuck into a gap while other plants withdraw from the cold. Perhaps next year I’ll smother the oxalis before it takes over and poke some broccoli into the ground to keep me cheery over winter. There’s little to do except pluck a weed here and there, collect the wind born items that accumulate in the corners. The tight buds on the Daphne bush are showing pink and white tips. They promise a fragrant bloom for Imbolc.
Light is Returning by Charlie Murphy, is the source of one of my favorite Midwinter song to sing in a group. The very talented Lisa Singline, from Acabellas, has beautifully adapted the lyrics and written a new melody and harmony for this song. Through her drumming circle she teaches rhythms to accompany this song. I can’t recommend her classes enough, there truly is something for everyone. Visit the Acabellas website. Below is Lisa’s arrangement.
Our planet is turning
On her course around the sun
Earth Mother is calling, her Children home
The light’s returning
Light’s returning, light_
The light’s returning
Light’s returning, light_
The light is returning
Though this is the darkest hour
No one can hold back the dawn
Let’s keep it burning
Keep the flame of hope alive
Make safe our journey through the storm.
It’s the perfect season to kindle a bonfire, fire up the oven for a hearty roast dinner and indulge in a fruity pudding and mulled wine or cider. Other European traditions have been incorporated into the Southern Hemisphere winter festivities. This includes Yule, or Jul. It is also celebrated in June, rather than December when the winter solstice falls in the Northern Hemisphere or New Year’s on December 30/January 1, as the winter solstice falls in the middle of the calendar year. This 6 month shift makes it more difficult to reconcile or incorporate Yule with other seasonal or family celebrations like Christmas, Kwanza, New Year or Hanukkah. Midwinter Dances by The Dolmen, is an example of how several traditions have been harmoniously combined in song. Cold weather provides the perfect opportunity for vigorous singing and dancing to liven things up, perhaps reminiscent of one of the english practice of wassailing or carolling.
Reconstruction, reinvention and reinterpretation are the hallmarks of modern paganism. There's no doubt though that Winter Solstice has been observed in holy places for thousands of years. At places like Newgrange, the 5000 year old passage tomb in Ireland, the sun rises on the winter solstice to illuminate a chamber deep at the heart of the megalithic monument. At Glastonbury Tor in England, at the Karnac Temple Complex in Egypt, the Goseck circle in Germany, and at Chichen Itza in Mexico the rising solstice sun makes significant alignments with the ancient structures.
But what meanings can we draw from these ancient places and how are they relevant today? To me they speak of a cultural heritage shared by many peoples stretching back thousands of years. Of the wisdom of our ancestors who marked the passage of time and celebrated the seasons and looked forward with optimism to the years ahead. To me they appear people who valued those who were here before them, recognized their own role in the sacred dramas and nurtured the new generations as the ancestors of the future. They planned ahead and invested enormous effort to leave these monuments as messages of hope for the generations to come.
This year I was inspired by the Triple Goddess to write a new poem for the Midwinter.
The Crone speaks gravely on Midwinter's morn
Before first light breaks the cold dawn
"Soon the old year gives way to the new,
Let go of the past grudges, bid them adieu."
The Matron She births on Midwinter's morn
And as She labors the year is reborn
"Gather and feast my children dear,
and sow your crops well this new year."
The Maiden She rises on Midwinter's morn
With the first light She takes a new form.
"Carry Her home to your hearth and your kin,
clear a way open and welcome Her in."
One of the best things about celebrating the winter solstice and contemplating the wisdom of the ancients, we can all do it for ourselves and come to our own conclusions. We are all participants in the cycles of the earth and we experience them directly, unmediated. We can find wisdom in the landscape for ourselves, if we but observe. For another take on the allegory of the seasons of life have a listen to Story of the Stones.
It’s cold out in June, in Southern Australia the wind chill makes it feel like it’s below zero. As soon as the sun drops below the horizon in the evening we scuttle inside seeking refuge out of the cold clear night. The sounds of a passing train travels right across the landscape on the thin winter air. This song from British 70s psychedelic-folk-rock band Midwinter invokes such moments.
Merry midwinter one and all!
Content on this page is written and coordinated by Cara. Last updated 29 June 2015. Please use the contact page to give feedback about this page.