Solstice Preparations

Celebrating the sabbats gives a focus to the seasons for me, and I like to mark them all in some way because they add meaning to my life. They are always high points, coming at random mid-week and interrupting routines. Yule is the biggest and the only one with significant preparations well in advance of the day. However, this year even more than previously I have been asking myself what preparations do I want to do as a pagan? What will add meaning for me, rather than just going along with what everyone else does?

The Winter Solstice does of course celebrate the return of the light. This can be interpreted in many ways, including the birth of the sun god. Mithras, Sol Invictus, or Jesus, whichever sun god you prefer to celebrate. So I have been making a gold star for the top of our tree (not finished yet!), and hung many gold decorations. Dried orange slices, or clove oranges are also great decorations that I would love to do in a future year. The tree being evergreen represents everlasting life, and brings warmth and protection to the household through the darkest days. I will keep the decorated tree until the mornings finally start getting lighter around 5th January, long after the shortest afternoon.

December Candle

December Candle

We have had a “December candle” for the first time this year, burning for 45 minutes each dinner. This provoked an interesting discussion with a friend who is an Anthroposophist, who after some thought said she felt everything should be building up to the birth of Christ, not decreasing. She liked the Advent wreaths in which an increasing number of candles are lit each week. However I feel that our candle represents the diminishing sunlight, which then returns when we reach the big event on the Solstice. (Our celebrations involve getting up to see the sunrise, and then sharing gifts after that. Yes we open ours a few days before everyone else…) The candle is surrounded by an ivy ring, which fits with Yule meaning wheel. The year is at its turning point, and is a time of rebirth and transformation. The light returns, and all is renewed to grow again.

Feasting is a major part of Yule, because when it is dark and cold outside we need suitably warming and sustaining food, for our spirits as well as our physical bodies. We have lost the natural rhythms to our lives over the past century or so; before the electronic age most people would have spent Winter evenings around a fireside, entertaining each other by whatever means they felt suited to and generally resting instead of working outdoors until late at night. Storytelling and singing was popular, as well as other forms of communal entertainment. Today illness frequently forces us to rest. But the return of the sun gives an extra reason to celebrate and have a bigger or fancier meal than every day, with decorations and joyous feasts to welcome it back. The winter may be far from over, but the light is increasing again each day.

However there is one aspect which has puzzled me for a while now. There are various chambered cairns in the rocky parts of our islands, thought by some to have been used for shamanic practices such as initiations or retreats or communications with ancestors, since most contain very few actual remains. Some are carefully aligned to the Winter Solstice, so that the sun enters only on a few days each year in midwinter – bringing light to what is otherwise a perpetually dark space. A famous example is Newgrange in Ireland. But Maeshowe in Orkney, or Clava Cairns near Nairn are both aligned to the setting sun, rather than to the rebirth in the morning. So what exactly were our ancestors celebrating, and what form did these celebrations take?

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Summer Solstice

Sketch for stained glass Green Man

Sketch for stained glass Green Man

Last weekend was the Summer Solstice, when the Earth reaches its maximum tilt of the North pole towards the sun and we get our longest day. Some people have said to me ‘I didn’t really do anything for Litha…’ as if they should be doing something special. The well-known ceremonies at Stonehenge and other places may foster the feeling that we should all be partying every time a Sabbat comes along, but it is only one way.

Midsummer is not a time of the year that has many traditions around it, like Mayday does stretching back centuries, or even Yule, although there are some good creation myths that have been written and a few old stories adapted. But from a nature perspective it is a very important time of the year – because day length is as important as temperature to the plants around us. In the garden the solstice marks the transition between planting vegetables to crop in summer, which should be in the ground and growing strongly by now, and those to sow or transplant late to avoid them bolting before the autumn. Jobs are marked as being either before or after the solstice. Trees, too, will open all their leaves on the old shoots by now and get all their blossom pollinated to set fruit. After the longest day they will reject what fruit they cannot sustain, and set about growing. New shoots, new leaves, and swelling the fruits that remain. We, too, can use this energy for positive action in our lives.

Two years ago at the Summer Solstice I had the shock of seeing a 50 year old oak tree on my road cut down and turned into woodchips, for no apparent reason except that someone didn’t want it there any more. The nature of my walk changed that day. I gathered up as many naturally fallen oak leaves as I could find along my route (a challenge at this time of year) and took them back home to make a ‘green man’ image, glueing them to a wooden Camembert lid. I then created a ritual and meditation based around the Oak, completely rewriting the planned ritual I had. It felt exactly right.

This year, by contrast, I did not do a ritual, but had a premonition that I would be awake for the sunrise. Sure enough, M woke me and I enjoyed the pinks and oranges reflected into the room in the small hours of the morning – probably the first Summer solstice sunrise I have seen, certainly the first I have seen consciously, welcoming the sun as it reaches its zenith. Later we had a walk in the sunshine and then ate lots of summer fruits from the garden. It was enough.

The Green Man is at his peak, and I am reminded of an experimental stained glass design I did at this time a few years ago, pictured above. I might even make it one day. Meanwhile, enjoy his energy.