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Celebrate the Solstice
Honoring The Earth's Seasonal Rhythms Through Festival and Ceremony
By Richard Heinberg
Theosophical Publishing HouseCopyright © 1993 Richard Heinberg
All rights reserved.
The Power of Festivals
IT IS AN EARLY WINTER MORNING in the year we would call 976, in the northeast corner of what is now San Fernando Valley in southern California. A Chumash shaman prepares for the most important moment of the season. He has spent the past three days fasting, singing, and praying. During the night he has partaken of the sacred and dangerous datura herb and his head reels with terrifying visions. Once again, as he has done every year at this time since receiving initiation from an older shaman, he deliberately crosses from the mundane world into the magical realm of the gods and spirits. He knows that this night, this morning, he must position himself at the boundary between the ordinary and the supernatural worlds in order to play his part in maintaining the balance and health of the Earth, of the sky, and of his people.
As the eastern horizon shows the first faint hint of coming daylight, he enters a shallow cave. Inside, he contemplates sacred petroglyphs whose meanings only he and his teacher understand. Dawn arrives, and the shaman watches in religious awe as a finger of sunlight approaches and bisects a series of concentric circles on the cave's back wall. It is only on one morning of the year—the morning of the year's shortest day—that this piercing of the circles occurs. It is a sign that the Sun has reached its extreme limit; it is a boundary of the cosmic order, revealing the shape of the world and of human affairs. Now, if his prayers have been effective, the days will grow longer and the light will return.
Later in the day he will lead his people in ceremony and celebration. The new year has begun, the Sun has been reborn, and the world has been fertilized.
* * *
It is a summer night in seventeenth-century Cornwall. In every direction the horizon is lit up by hilltop bonfires. A young new-lywed couple are dancing with their families and friends around a fire they've built from straw and brush. There is much laughter and singing. Each couple, hand in hand, takes a turn leaping across the flames for good luck, as Cornish couples have done on similar Midsummer evenings for untold generations past.
The young man and woman are from families with ancient ties to the land. In their entire lives they will never once leave this rugged precinct of tiny fields bordered by piled-rock fences, and dotted with prehistoric stone monuments—the subjects of innumerable and sometimes lurid legends.
This has been the longest day of the year. From this night onward until late December, nature will gradually lose her vitality, only to awaken again next spring with the return of the light.
According to the traditional English calendar, summer commenced on May 1; today, June 21, is Midsummer. Vegetation is nearly at its peak of growth; the wilting heat of late summer is yet to come. It is a time when local holy wells have special powers of healing, and when the ancient stone circles are visited by fairies and spirits.
The Church of England has repeatedly instructed the local priest to discourage Midsummer rites because of their "pagan" origin, but instead he turns a blind eye to them. Though he disapproves of all the talk of ghosts and nature spirits, he sees no real harm in the festivities. After all, he can see for himself how the people are refreshed and revived by the break in their routines. Like the newlywed couple dancing on the hilltop, he knows in his very bones that it is a time to celebrate.
* * *
The time is the present. We are at the edge of the Cleveland National Forest in Riverside County, California, on ground once sacred to the Luiseno Indians. Four friends, two men and two women, have agreed to meet before dawn to climb into the hills to watch a December sunrise together.
By profession they are an architect, a massage therapist, a gardener, and a writer. All share a keen interest in ecological issues and a passion for life. During the years they've known each other, they've shared joys and sorrows, accomplishments and tragedies. Their friendship has served as an anchor of kindness and genuineness in the bizarre, stress-filled maelstrom that is life in the late twentieth century.
They stand in somewhat awkward silence, watching the eastern horizon. Their breath condenses in the chilly air. Birds in the canyon below begin to sing as the first ray of dawn pierces the horizon. The four join hands in a silent prayer for the Earth. As the Sun comes fully above the hills to the southeast and the air begins to warm, they lift their arms, turn clockwise, and begin a spontaneous circle dance. They move slowly at first, but the light in one another's eyes seems to propel them a little faster, then faster still, wheeling and kicking and jumping. By now all are laughing heartily and they break into a long, fond group hug. Smiling and still holding hands, they start back down the hillside. It is the winter Solstice.
* * *
For thousands of years our ancestors marked the seasons of the year with festivals. These festivals—of which the greatest and most universally observed were the twice-yearly Solstices—served many functions. They bound together young and old, women and men, rich and poor. They gave people an emotional outlet and a break from ordinary cultural strictures and boundaries. All work was put aside; prisoners were freed; masters and servants traded places.
The festivals also provided ways for the community to govern itself. Not only did the people enjoy themselves on these occasions, but in gathering together they had opportunity to discuss their collective affairs. Politics and revelry were combined, for example, in the staging and acting out of plays satirizing unpopular nobles, merchants, and church officials.
But perhaps most importantly, the old seasonal festivals deepened people's sense of connection with land and sky. The Sun, Moon, stars, trees, crops, and animals were all included in the celebration. Each person felt a heightened connection with the Source of all life. In short, the festival was the community's way of renewing itself and its bonds with nature.
For the most part, we who live at the end of the twentieth century no longer celebrate these ancient festivals. Or, if we do, we observe them in unrecognizable forms—as (for example) in Christmas and New Year gatherings. But these are often highly commercialized affairs. Gone is the sense of participation in the cyclic interaction of the Earth and the heavens.
Now, we seem to be interested only in our human business. We rarely look up at the night sky, and we tend to observe a sunrise or sunset with only casual interest.
Meanwhile, human society creaks and groans under the weight of violence, injustice, overpopulation, poverty, and greed. And our ties with nature are strained nearly to the breaking point from water and air pollution, the destruction of the ozone layer, global warming, species extinctions, and deforestation.
Could there be a connection between our ignorance of the seasonal festivals and our loss of relatedness with one another and with the Earth?
These days, people everywhere are voicing their concerns about the environment and are looking for ways to make a difference. More and more, we sense that it is time to return our attention to the Earth and to heal the rift we have created.
Perhaps it is time also to return to the festivals.
The recovery of the ancient seasonal festivals is more than a symbolic gesture. It can be a meaningful way of reminding ourselves of the natural order of things. It can also provide opportunities to increase our awareness of nature and to affirm our commitment to its welfare.
Seasonal festivals shouldn't be thought of merely as cultural relics. They were—and potentially are—joyous, fun, mischievous, profound, life-affirming events that connect us deeply with the land, the sky, and the wellspring of being within us.
Festivals are times of singing, dancing, and laughter. They are times when the child inside each of us is allowed to come out and play. They are times when old and young find a cross-generational bond. They are times when we return to the simple truths at the heart of life.
Is the celebration of the Solstices pagan or un-Christian? Certainly, the great seasonal festivals were key elements of the religions of pre-Christian Europe. But the Solstices themselves transcend religious ideology: they are simply astronomical facts. And they were celebrated by ancient peoples everywhere in the world, not just by the inhabitants of so-called pagan Europe.
Moreover, the early Christians were quick to appropriate the ancient festivals into their own calendar of holy days. As we see in Chapter 7, Christmas—the most popular Christian holiday—was deliberately timed to coincide with the winter Solstice. This is partly because the winter Solstice and Christmas are both times to celebrate the birth of light and to affirm our hope for the renewal of the world.
Many familiar Yuletide customs have more to do with the winter Solstice than with Christian doctrine. The mixture of the two celebrations at first served to popularize the Christian festival and later served to preserve some of the ancient Solstice traditions that were in danger of being forgotten.
But perhaps separating the two festivals once again—the Solstice on one hand, and Christmas on the other—will make it easier for Christians to refocus the unique meaning of their midwinter holiday and for us all to rediscover a celebration in which everyone can participate.
We can all benefit from attention paid to our home planet and to her relationship with the cosmos beyond. Whether we are Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, followers of Native American or African religions, agnostics, or atheists, we can express our gratitude for the gifts of light and life. The Solstice isn't about worshipping particular gods or goddesses. It is about life itself.
This book is designed to help you and your family and friends engage in full-bodied, ecstatic seasonal renewal by recovering an experience that had deep meaning for the ancients and that is increasingly relevant today to a world on the edge of environmental catastrophe.
In Chapter 2, we see just what the Solstices and Equinoxes are, in simple astronomical terms. Then, in Chapters 3 through 8, we briefly survey the ways people have celebrated the Solstices—from the Paleolithic era to the present, and from Europe to China to pre-Columbian America.
In Chapter 9 we examine the intrinsic cultural and psychological meanings of the Solstices; and in Chapters 10 and 11 we explore ways you and your family and friends can celebrate the Solstice now—ways that will benefit both you and the planet. A festival is not an occasion for pious preaching, empty resolutions, or self-recrimination. It is an opportunity to enhance your experience of life in the eternal present. There's plenty of information in this book to satisfy your curiosity about the history, mythology, and meaning of the Solstices. But the real point of all of this information is to enable you to celebrate now.CHAPTER 2
What Is a Solstice?
THE EARTH'S ROTATIONAL AXIS is not perpendicular to the plane of its orbit around the Sun. Instead, it is tilted at about 23½ degrees. It is this tilt that produces the seasons. When the North Pole turns roughly in the direction of the Sun, it is summer in the northern hemisphere. The Sun is then more nearly overhead at noon, and so its rays strike the Earth at an angle that is closer to perpendicular. The days are long, and the nights short. Meanwhile, it is winter in the southern hemisphere, where the solar rays are more oblique; there the days are shorter, and the Sun is closer to the horizon all day long.
In six months, the situation will be reversed: the southern hemisphere will enjoy the long days and intense sunlight of summer, while the northern hemisphere will experience the dark, cold, gestative season of winter.
On two days a year, one in late December and the other in late June, the Earth's axis is tilted the most directly toward (and away from) the Sun that it will be during the year. On about June 21, when the North Pole is pointed Sunward, people in the northern hemisphere experience the longest day and the shortest night of the year. This is their summer Solstice. For people in the southern hemisphere, the same day is their winter Solstice.
Six months later, the Earth has traveled halfway along its yearly solar orbit. Now the South Pole is turned as far in the direction of the Sun as it will get during the year. It is winter Solstice in Europe and North America, but it is summer Solstice in southern Africa and South America, and in Australia and New Zealand.
The word Solstice comes from the Latin words Sol stetit, which mean, literally, "the Sun stood still." From the observer's point of view on Earth's northern hemisphere, the Sun rises and sets further south on the horizon as winter Solstice approaches; it rises and sets further north as summer Solstice nears (the situation being reversed in the southern hemisphere). The movement of the points of solar rising and setting along the eastern and western horizons quickens in spring and autumn but slows as the Solstices approach. Then, for about six days in late December and again in late June, the Sun appears to rise and set at almost exactly the same places. Its rising and setting points appear to stand still—hence the name Solstice.
The Solstices divide the year into two halves—six months of waxing Sun, followed by six months of waning Sun. These two half-yearly sub-cycles constitute a pair of complementary opposites—like day and night, light and dark, heat and cold, positive and negative. Ancient peoples knew that everything needs an opposite or complement to give it meaning and vitality. It is the interplay of complementary principles that gives rise to movement and change.
But the points of division—the boundaries or edges between complements—are ambiguous, neither this nor that. They are mysterious and magical, belonging to neither this world nor the next, and therefore serve as gateways between dimensions, realities, and states of consciousness. This is why the Solstices, as hinges of the seasons, were always regarded as times when the two worlds were especially close. They were times of danger and opportunity; times for special alertness and aliveness.
Equinoxes and Quarter Days
Halfway between the Solstices, in late March and again in late September, there are two days when the northern and southern hemispheres receive the same amount of sunlight and the days and nights are of the same length. Then, the tilt of Earth's axis is not toward the Sun, but lies at a right angle to an imaginary Earth-Sun line. At the equator, the Sun is directly overhead. These days are the Equinoxes (Equinox means "equal night"). Ancient peoples regarded the Equinoxes, like the Solstices, as significant moments of the year, nodes in the yearly cycle of seasons.
The Equinoxes are times of balance, and yet they are also times of intense change: the solar rising and setting points are moving quickly from day to day—southward during autumn, northward during spring. For most ancient peoples, the spring—or vernal— Equinox was always celebrated as a time of new life, while the fall Equinox was naturally a harvest festival.
In Celtic Europe there were other seasonal festivals as well—the quarter days, so called because they fall midway between Solstice and Equinox.
Imbolg (from the Celtic word for "sheep's milk"), falling on February 2, was the start of the lambing season. Also called Brigid or (in the Christian calendar) Candlemas, it marks the return of the light, a station in the yearly process of transformation from inner, contemplative focus toward outer manifestation. Imbolg survives in modern America as Groundhog Day.
Beltane (or Beltine), the first day of May, was celebrated with great bonfires in Scotland, Wales, Sweden, and Bohemia. The dance around the Maypole and the selection of a king and queen of the May are rites that have continued in Europe into modern times. The eve of May Day is Walpurgis Nacht, when witches were supposed to ride through the night sky on hellish missions.
Excerpted from Celebrate the Solstice by Richard Heinberg. Copyright © 1993 Richard Heinberg. Excerpted by permission of Theosophical Publishing House.
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