Celebrating Winter Solstice

Posted: Sunday, December 19, 2010

The winter solstice occurs exactly when the Earth's tilt is the farthest away from the sun at its maximum axial tilt of 23 degrees, 26 minutes. This moment will occur at 10:38 p.m. Tuesday. Although the winter solstice lasts only an instant in time, the celebration of this moment can take days depending on where you are in the world. Contained within this moment of tilt is the notion we are moving from increasing darkness to increasing light. This is powerful imagery, regardless of your cultural orientation. However, for many cultures this moment of winter solstice signifies rebirth and involves elaborate festivals and rituals.

If you lived in China or East Asia you would likely be caught up in one of the most important festivals of the year and preparing for family gatherings involving meals with sticky rice. The origins of these festivals can be traced back to the philosophy of yin and yang, of bringing balance and harmony in the cosmos into your daily life. Celebrating the turning point when days become longer symbolizes the increase in positive energy that should now be flowing in.

If Ireland was your home and you were interested in the ancient ways of the Druids, you would probably be one of many registering for lottery tickets to see the display of light illuminating the chamber floor of the Newgrange tomb in County Meath. Apparently, once a year on winter solstice, light pierces through the roof chambers to light up the inner floor for 17 minutes. This display of light is considered too precise for it to have been created by chance. Viewing this display of light on winter solstice is now so popular in Ireland, a lottery must be held for viewing tickets.

In Ancient Greece, the winter solstice ritual was called Lenaea, the Festival of the Wild Women. In very ancient times, a man representing the harvest god Dionysos was torn to pieces and eaten by a gang of women on this day. Later in the ritual, Dionysos would be reborn as a baby. Fortunately, by classical times, the human sacrifice had been replaced by the killing of a goat and eventually the women's role had changed to that of funeral mourners and observers of the birth. At this time, wine miracles were performed by the priests. Priests would seal water or juice in a room overnight and the next day they would have turned into wine. The miracle was said to have been performed by Dionysos.

Here in America's older cultures, the Hopi and Zuni Indians have priests whose special duty it is to observe the annual course of the sun, and hence to determine the dates for the great festivals of the winter and summer solstices. The celebration starts when the Zuni sun priest stands on a petrified stump commonly located at the outskirts of the village and prays and sprinkles corn meal to honor the Sun Father's return from the South. For Zuni's the winter solstice is the start of the month they call Turning Back.

If you live in Fairbanks, you would likely be attending the Winter Solstice Festival hosted by downtown businesses or signing up for the solstice snowshoe race. But here in Juneau the recognition of winter solstice is more of a private moment. For some it is an important psychological moment to get us through our cabin fever. Just knowing the days will be getting longer, actually gaining minutes by Wednesday, is uplifting.

For me, winter solstice is about celebrating light and regaining balance in my life. Although I have had my share of "wild women" moments, I will not be sacrificing goats. The closest connection I will make to the celebrations of Ancient Greece will be to raise a glass of wine while sharing a beach fire with friends. But then again, there will be a full moon Tuesday. There just may be some wild women howling at the moon.

• Troll is a long-time Alaskan with more than 22 years of experience in fisheries, coastal policy and energy policy. She resides in Douglas.

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