The Magic of Winter Solstice

Original artwork available

Today, Wednesday 21  at 10:44 am GMT–5:44 am EST~~we experience the exact moment of the winter solstice, the first day of winter.  This makes for the longest night of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. Days will get longer until the summer solstice in June 2017. The winter solstice has been celebrated throughout history as the return of the sun. Darkness is turning into light. What did our ancestors believe and what remains their legacy to us regarding this most spiritual of days?

Saturnalia & Etc.,

In ancient Rome, the winter solstice was enjoyed at the Feast of Saturnalia, the god of agricultural bounty. The week long festivities were characterized by drinking, debauchery and gift-giving. When Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, many of these customs were adjusted into much milder (and tamer) Christmas celebrations. The English Lord of Misrule has his roots in these old traditions. The Tudor King Henry VIII saw to it that this character was quieted due to the country’s new Protestant beliefs when the King founded the Church of England in order to marry his beloved Anne Boleyn. He didn’t want the crowds which gathered for the Christmas festivities getting out of control, so he distanced them in a very calculated way. His daughter Elizabeth I continued her father’s low-key placement of the Lord of Misrule at Christmas.

A Lot of Dancing & Drinking

winter-solstice-NewgrangeOne of the most famous celebrations of the winter solstice today takes place in the ruins of Stonehenge, England. Thousands of druids and pagans gather to chant, dance and sing…hoping to see the sun and the promise of a new beginning. But, as you can see from this picture, Newgrange Ireland is one of the best kept secrets of winter solstice. According to English Shaman Gary Plunkett, “It is magical if the weather is sunny.”  Indigenous native religions worldwide believe that the earth is the foundation of all the four elements. According to The White Goddess, “The Earth can be viewed as our mother. The Earth is the womb from which all things spring…In its fertile soil, we’ve grown the food that provides life, on its surface we live out our lives, and when the time to return to the Goddess and God comes, we are interred in the earth…This Earth energy not only exists within ourselves but also throughout the universe at large.” The Earth element is symbolized by the north which is winter and darkness. 

Winter Trees

Until the 16th century, the winter months were times of famine and starvation in northern Europe and north and central America. Cattle and bison were slaughtered so they wouldn’t have to be fed during the winter months, and the hunting season had officially ended. This made solstice a time when fresh meat was plentiful, hence celebrations of the winter solstice in Europe involved merriment and feasting. My blog last week discussed this along with the Scandinavian Yule folkloric traditions.

Worlds of Enchantment

The majority of ancient beliefs acknowledge a Goddess at this time of year. Here are a few of the December observances which were revered by the ancients and have been shared by  Patti Wigington from her website:

  • Bona Dea (Roman): This fertility goddess was worshiped in a secret temple on the Aventine hill in Rome, and only women were permitted to attend her rites. Her annual festival was held early in December.Cailleach Bheur (Celtic): MMCIn Scotland, she is also called Beira, the Queen of Winter. She is the hag aspect of the Triple Goddess, and rules the dark days between Samhain and Beltaine.
  • Demeter (Greek): Through her daughter, Persephone, Demeter is linked strongly to the changing of the seasons and is often connected to the image of the Dark Mother in winter. When Persephone was abducted by Hades, Demeter’s grief caused the earth to die for six months, until her daughter’s return.
  • Dionysus (Greek): A festival called Brumalia was held every December in honor of Dionysus and his fermented grape wine. The event proved so popular that the Romans adopted it as well in their celebrations of Bacchus.
  • Frigga (Norse): Frigga honored her son, Baldur, by asking all of nature not to harm him, but in her haste overlooked the mistletoe plant. Loki fooled Baldur’s blind twin, Hodr, into killing him with a spear made of mistletoe but Odin later restored him to life. As thanks, Frigga declared that mistletoe must be regarded as a plant of love, rather than death. File Dec 19, 8 45 56 PM
  • Holly King (British/Celtic): The Holly King is a figure found in British tales and folklore. He is similar to the Green Man, the archetype of the forest. In modern Pagan religion, the Holly King battles the Oak King for supremacy throughout the year. At the winter solstice, the Holly King is defeated.
  • Odin (Norse): In some legends, Odin bestowed gifts at Yuletide upon his people, riding a magical flying horse across the sky. This legend may have combined with that of St. Nicholas to create the modern Santa Claus.
  • Saturn (Roman): Every December, the Romans threw a week-long celebration of debauchery and fun, called Saturnalia in honor of their agricultural god, Saturn. Roles were reversed, and slaves became the masters, at least temporarily. This is where the tradition of the Lord of Misrule originated.

Cheers to Your Health & Good Fortune!

Here is a Wassail recipe for those of  you of British/Celtic/English origin. The pagan and the tradition versions of the wassail song are remarkably similar. When we think of our current holiday traditions, we owe more to the Winter Goddess of our ancestors than I ever realized until researching for today’s blog. Enjoy yourself however you celebrate. Have a safe and magical Holiday Season spent with those you love.

(A very special thank you to artist Emily Balivet for allowing me to use her print, The Snow Queen, as today’s featured image.)

Old apple tree we wassail thee
And hoping thou will bear
For the Lord doth know where we shall be
‘Til apples come another year

For to bear well and to bloom well
So merry let us be
Let every man take off his hat
And shout to the old apple tree

Old apple tree we wassail thee
And hoping thou will bear
Hat fulls, cap fulls, three bushel bag fulls
And a little heap under the stair

Hip! Hip! Hooray!

Serves serves 6 to 8 people
Prep time 15 minutes
Cook time 15 minutes
Total time 30 minutes
Meal type Beverage
Misc Pre-preparable, Serve Hot
Occasion Christmas, Formal Party,Halloween
Region British
By author Karen Burns-Booth


  • 6 small apples, cored
  • 6 teaspoons soft brown sugar
  • 1 orange
  • 6 cloves
  • 1 1/2 cups confectioner’s sugar
  • 4 1/4 pints of cider
  • 1 1/4 cups of port
  • 1 1/4 cups of sherry or Madeira
  • 2 cinnamon sticks
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1 lemon, halved


A traditional English Wassail recipe that originates from Suffolk is a delectable hot, spiced mulled cider with sherry and port and is served with the all important baked apples. A Yorkshire version called “Lamb’s Wool” is made with ale instead of cider.


Step 1 Pre-heat oven to 200C/400F.
Step 2 Cut around the middle of each apple with a sharp knife and place them in an oven-proof dish. Fill each apple core cavity with a teaspoon of sift brown sugar. Stick the cloves in the orange and place it with the apples in the dish. Add a little water, about 6 tablespoons and roast in the pre-heated oven for 30 to 45 minutes, or until the apples are soft but still retain their shape.
Step 3 Leave the apples in the dish to keep warm and take the orange out – cut it in half and place it on a large sauce pan. Add the rest of the ingredients and the juices from the apple roasting dish to the sauce pan and gently heat until the sugar has dissolved.
Step 4 Bring the mixture to the boil and then turn it down immediately and keep it warm until you need to serve it.
Step 5 When you are ready to serve the wassail, ladle the fruit and spiced into a large punch bowl and then pour the wassail into the bowl. Add the apples by floating them on top and serve straight away in warmed mugs or cups.
Step 6 The apples can be eaten afterwards as a delectable dessert with cream or custard.

10 Comments on “The Magic of Winter Solstice

  1. From you, I can always count on a blog post that will touch your heart and warm your soul. Blessed to be your friend, Hunter and I wish you and Paul many blessings this Holiday season and into the New Year! xxoo


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