Winter Solstice: Older, and more familiar, than you might think

A local queer witch explains the history, meaning, and modern observances of Winter Solstice

by Julianna Peres (she/her)

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The Winter Solstice takes place this year on Monday, Dec. 21. Many people have at least some knowledge of the Winter Solstice, primarily that it is simultaneously the shortest day and the longest night of the year within the Northern Hemisphere. What many people may not know or have never learned is the Winter Solstice’s history, its cultural significances, and its association with witches. Nighttime is often associated with witchcraft because many spells require quiet, darkness, and specific phases of the moon. The Winter Solstice functions as a sort of catalyst for the coming winter months; not unlike the Groundhog determining the first day of spring.

As a self-identified witch and founding member of UNC Charlotte’s organization Witches Across Campus, I have made it my responsibility to teach myself and others the history that was specifically omitted from history books. So, follow along with me here as we recount some of Winter Solstice’s history and current meanings today.

By many accounts, the Winter Solstice — as a special and ritualized moment or holiday — has been around since the Stone Ages. Especially in places such as Ireland, China, and even the Mongolian empire, the Winter Solstice has always been replete with tradition and communal celebration. Many of those traditions, especially from Europe, have continued on in various forms inside Western Christian celebrations of Christmas. Most of American society knows the song “Twelve Days of Christmas,” but did you know that this stems from the twelve celebratory days of Yule/the Feast of Juul in Scandinavian nations? Just like the later iteration of a 12-day Christmastide (Dec. 25-Jan. 6), Yuletide is a 12-day celebration (Dec. 21-Jan. 1) of the Norse god Thor and the burning of the Yule/Juul log in order to bring about good fortune for the following year. Other pre-Christian Yule traditions have found a home in Christmas celebrations, including the hanging of evergreen boughs and the use of holly, ivy, and mistletoe as decorations.

There is one pivotal aspect of the Winter Solstice — similar to Christmas and other winter seasonal holidays, both ancient and modern, like Hanukkah or Kwanzaa — that no one will be able to partake in this year: community. Whether celebrating the Ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia, Santo Tomas in Guatemala, or a coven-based Winter Solstice, this year will look different than all the others before it. For those who have covens, there will be socially distant gatherings outdoors or even Zoom meetings during the Winter Solstice. Unfortunately, for communities in South America, touching is a big part of these celebrations. There’s typically plenty of hugging, hand-holding, and up-close dancing. The good news is that we have technology that allows us to be together virtually. For those who want to maintain the authenticity of the Winter Solstice, there’s also letter writing. There’s something about pressing herbs and spritzing perfume on card stock paper, sealing a creamy envelope with wax, and handwriting a loved ones’ address that truly harkens back to several centuries ago.

For witches such as myself, Dec. 21 will be a time of rebirth. It is the yearly “start over” that brings about the seedlings of change. It’s not so much a purging of the prior seasons as it is an illumination of it. It’s the time to bring forth all of the mistakes, failures, bad thoughts, and negative feelings from the previous year. I take all of the things that I’ve thrown into the darkest corners of myself and put it in the light of the moon and of the candles.

This year I will be focusing on the fights I’ve had with my girlfriend, the duties I’ve shirked at my job, familial disagreements, and the many, many bouts of anger and frustration that I have misdirected towards those around me. Many witches keep these things private. It’s up to you, rather than your coven or organization, how much, or how little, you want to share with others.

I have known a few witches who take the Winter Solstice as an opportunity to change their style, home décor, professions, or even names. The Winter Solstice is about renewal, yes, but it is also about authenticity and growth. A friend of mine changes their name once or twice a year. It can be difficult to keep up with at times, but all you have to do is ask and be willing to learn. The Winter Solstice is about bringing power to oneself through the nature, words, and relationships.

For my actual celebration of Winter Solstice this year, I will be building a Yule altar and interacting with my fellow witches on an online forum. I will stay up into the witching hour (3:00am) and that is when I will begin writing my goals for 2021. Generally, the Winter Solstice is one of the prime days of the year for invoking spirits and calling upon the deceased. Although I do not use Ouija boards or conduct seances, I do use tarot cards and crystals. Whatever items you do hold sacred should be put outside at night as a way to allow them their own Winter Solstice feast on the power of the Solstice moon.

Happy Yule and bright Solstice to you and yours!

If this is your first time celebrating Winter Solstice, there are plenty of resources out there for you. And remember that there is no wrong way to celebrate. Winter is something that affects everyone on earth and can be commemorated in whatever culture with whatever items and in whatever context you feel most comfortable.

Want to learn more about Winter Solstice?

Here are some helpful YouTube videos:

Here are some helpful books:
• Seasons in Mind: Celebrating the Solstices by Jim Donovan
• Wintering : The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times by Katherine May
• Yule-Winter Solstice-Rituals, Recipes, & Lore for the Winter Solstice-Celebrating the Seasonal Rites of the Witch’s Year-Prayers Invocations by SacredRoseHerbRoot
• The Old Magic of Christmas: Yuletide Traditions for the Darkest Days of the Year by Linda Raedisch
• The Fires of Yule: A Keltelven Guide for Celebrating the Winter Solstice by Montague Whitsel
• Pagan Writers Presents Yule by Camenae E. deWelles, Angelique Mroczka, Rosa Sophia
• Yule: Creating New Pagan Family Traditions by Jodi Lee