Saturday, 20 December 2014

Winter Solstice

It's the Winter Solstice this weekend and the days have been gradually getting darker. The shortest day of the year, normally December 21st, is still a magical time for many people in the northern hemisphere. This time of year partly forms the background for my full length historical novel, Midwinter Masquerade, which is set in the Scottish countryside in 1816.

The Winter Solstice is the day when the sun appears to stand still before changing direction, although it's actually the earth which tilts around the sun. The days will slowly begin to lengthen again until reaching the longest day on the Summer Solstice. The word solstice is thought to stem from two Latin words: sol, meaning sun and sistere, to stand.

The days leading up to the Winter Solstice were known as Saturnalia in Roman times, marking the moment when the sun was reborn after the shortest day and longest night. To celebrate the occasion and to welcome the coming of light, most people left aside their work to enjoy as much merriment and feasting as possible.

Another important part of the festival was the winter greenery brought inside to decorate homes around this time, such as ivy, holly, laurel and mistletoe, all illuminated by the light from candles. The evergreen ivy and the holly with its bright red berries have had many myths and legends attached to them over the centuries, often to do with new life and rebirth.

Here in Britain, there is a wealth of carols and poems celebrating the place holly and ivy have in our December traditions, both pagan and Christian, from Advent, through the twelve days of Christmas to Epiphany, such as this poem by Robert Herrick from the 16th century.

The darling of the world is come,
And fit it is we find a room
To welcome him. The nobler part
Of all the house here is the heart.

Which we will give him, and bequeath
This holly and this ivy wreath,
To do him honour who’s our King,
And Lord of all this revelling.

Many people still celebrate this special time at the Winter Solstice and it is especially sacred to the Druids and some pagan beliefs. Stonehenge in England is one of the most significant ancient spiritual sites where hundreds of people will gather to watch the sun set on the shortest day tomorrow and will welcome the new sunrise after the longest night of the year. 

Do you celebrate the solstice at all?



Wendy's Writing said...

I read Midwinter Masquerade last year and really enjoyed it although I don't celebrate the winter solstice myself.

Rosemary Gemmell said...

Thanks for that, Wendy - glad you enjoyed it! I don't celebrate either but I love all the history associated with it.

Joanna said...

This is a fascinating post, Rosemary. I enjoyed finding out about the solstice, as I knew very little about it. I have never celebrated it, but have a friend whose family do and they enjoy having effectively two Christmases! xx

Rosemary Gemmell said...

Many thanks for your comment, Joanna - probably more people celebrate it than I suspected!

Nicola said...

What a thoughtful and inspiring posst. Thank you, Rosemary. Quite often in my life, I have stood still and then completely changed direction.
I love the picture and the mysterious beauty. I could lose myself in it for hours.
Wishing you a lovely Christmas and all the very best for the new year.

Carolb said...

Very interesting post, thank you, Rosemary.

I don't keep the Solstice myself, but I do grow holly and ivy in my garden.

Have a wonderful Christmas and New Year. :-)

Rosemary Gemmell said...

Thank you for your lovely comment, Nicola - have a wonderful Christmas.

Thanks, Carol - wishing you all the best.

Frances Garrood said...

And now, the days start getting longer. Bring it (them) on!

Have a lovely Christmas, Rosemary.

Rosemary Gemmell said...

Thanks - you too, Frances!

Linda D said...

I don't do anything special for the solstice but I do feel that it is an important turning point. Although we often get the worst winter weather after Christmas at least the days do start getting a little longer.