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Winter Solstice & Longest Night

prairie night sky in the winter at dusk

The longest night of winter solstice celebrates the presence of Spirit and the power of faith and hope that our visions of a new day will come.

The light is elusive right now. We must wait in the darkness of Midwinter. This is not easy for most of us who are not comfortable with the dark ... being in silence, resting, and dreaming. But we must carry hope, pray for the light to return, and move toward a vision that we will work to make a reality.

foggy trees, candle and teas, praire sunset, longest night

December 21 marks the winter solstice

This is a magical, contemplative time, a sacred night of spiritual reconnection and communion. The winter solstice is the shortest day and the longest night of the year when the sun is at its lowest arc in the sky.


Many of us are not aware of this phenomenon of the sun.

In fact, we are rarely attuned to the rhythm of the earth and the sky. Instead, we are focused on the gathering speed brought by the holidays. Caught up in the rush of shopping, cooking, decorating, event planning, and travel, we move counter to the rhythm of the natural world around us and counter to our own internal clocks. This can cause stress, anxiety, and restlessness.

Often, this time of greatest darkness has encouraged humanity to gather amongst loved ones and for celebrations and rituals looking towards rebirth and return to the light.

It is no coincidence that it falls so close to Christmas, on December 25th. Rome chose this date for Christ’s birth in the fourth century, after many centuries of date changes ranging from January to April. And even now, some Orthodox churches celebrate Christmas in January. The date chosen for Christmas coincided with several winter festivals observed across the Roman Empire that included Alban Arthan (Druidic), Yule or Juul, and Saturnalia. Different aspects of these appear to have been absorbed into the Christian celebration of Christmas. 


Winter Solstice celebrations were not limited to Europe. In Iran, they observe Yalda by staying up all night, reading poetry and stories, and eating watermelon and pomegranate in anticipation of the sun rising. In Northern Arizona, the Hopi Indians celebrate Soyal, which includes rituals of purification and dancing and welcoming the kachinas, which are protective mountain spirits. The Dhongzi festival occurs in China and East Asia, to celebrate not only the longer daylight hours but the influx of positive energy as well. Its origins are traceable to the philosophy of yin and yang, welcoming balance and harmony. 

 

No matter how you mark this occasion, you are a part of a long lineage of ancestors from all over the world who have celebrated at this same exact time. In a spiritual sense, this is an ideal time to embrace your inner self and reflect on who you are and where you’d like to go. This is a perfect time for reflection, introspection, and intention setting. 

 

The winter solstice can also be symbolic of other "long nights" we face in life.

In a season that is supposedly merry and bright, there are many who struggle with pain, anxiety, depression, and loneliness. Fresh grief, as well as the grief we carry from our past, can become pronounced against the backdrop of bright lights, upbeat music, and jolly holiday refrains. Dealing with the illness or death of a loved one, facing life after divorce or separation, coping with the loss of a job, living with cancer or some other dis-ease that puts a question mark over the future, and a number of other human situations make parties and joviality painful for many people. 

"We are always on a journey from darkness into light," the Irish poet/philosopher John O'Donohue reminds us.

"At first, we are children of the darkness. Your body and your face were formed first in the kind darkness of your mother's womb. You lived the first nine months in there. Your birth was the first journey from darkness into light. All your life, your mind lives within the darkness of your body. Every thought you have is a flint moment, a spark of light from your inner darkness. The miracle of thought is its presence in the night side of your soul; the brilliance of thought is born of darkness. Each day is a journey. We come out of the night into the day. All creativity awakens at this primal threshold where light and darkness test and bless each other. You only discover the balance in your life when you learn to trust the flow of this ancient rhythm."

 

When shots ring out, when we can't breathe, when hope is lost, God is with us, even in our longest night
Honoring the Longest Night

This week, in addition to preparing for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day services, many churches will offer a “Longest Night” or “Blue Christmas” service. Usually held on or near the Winter Solstice, this gathering provides a space for those who are having a difficult time during the holidays or simply need to acknowledge some pain or loss they are carrying in the midst of this season of celebration. The services are reflective while acknowledging where we are in our lives, still holding to hope that things will get better.

Blessing from Jan L. Richardson

Today, as we walk with those who are experiencing loss – ourselves included – carry this blessing with you:

Jan Richardson Advent image of darkness and moon

All throughout these months
as the shadows
have lengthened,
this blessing has been
gathering itself,
making ready,
preparing for
this night.

It has practiced
walking in the dark,
traveling with
its eyes closed,
feeling its way
by memory
by touch
by the pull of the moon
even as it wanes.

So believe me
when I tell you
this blessing will
reach you
even if you
have not light enough
to read it;
it will find you
even though you cannot
see it coming.

You will know
the moment of its
arriving
by your release
of the breath
you have held
so long;
a loosening
of the clenching
in your hands,
of the clutch
around your heart;
a thinning
of the darkness
that had drawn itself
around you.

This blessing
does not mean
to take the night away
but it knows
its hidden roads,
knows the resting spots
along the path,
knows what it means
to travel
in the company
of a friend.

So when
this blessing comes,
take its hand.
Get up.
Set out on the road
you cannot see.

This is the night
when you can trust
that any direction
you go,
you will be walking
toward the dawn.

—Jan Richardson from The Cure for Sorrow: A Book of Blessings for Times of Grief

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