The symbols of Winter Solstice are beautiful and many. In the United States and the Western world we are familiar with things like Santa Claus, giving small gifts (or big gifts!), setting goals for the coming year and reflecting on the past year. In fact, many of the holiday traditions that we have incorporated into the holiday season of Christmas have their roots in ancient winter solstice traditions!
What IS the winter solstice?
If you are living in the northern hemisphere of the earth, the day that marks the official start of winter is December 21st. It is on this day that the earth tits the furthest away from the sun, creating the shortest day of the year (in terms of daylight hours) and also the longest night of the year.
*The amount of sunlight that the earth’s hemispheres receive is based on the earth’s orbit (around the sun) and the degree of it’s tilt.
What is the spiritual symbolism of the winter solstice
The sun is our lifeline. It is what keeps the earth warm enough to be inhabitable, it tells us when to sleep and when to wake, it determines the season and is the reason that our food can grow. The sun is said to give “prana” which is life force energy, and in many cultures the sun is understood as a representation of Source. (This is my most favourite book that talks about the return of the sun through stories about cultures all over the world. It’s 21 stories long, so you can read it from the beginning of December up until the day of the Winter solstice!)
Starting in fall, the hours of daylight begin to be less and less until the point of winter solstice, when the longest night and shortest day occurs. Immediately following the winter solstice, the days begin to get longer, the hours of daylight increasing each day. For this reason, the winter solstice is hailed as “The Birth of the Sun” or the “Return of the Sun”.
In the Christian tradition, the birth of Christ is celebrated during the time of Winter Solstice. It is certainly no coincidence that the Christ should show up “on the darkest night”, bringing with Him the return of the light. So, the symbolism of the natural world rings true with the symbolism of the spiritual world in that the “Son of Man” and the “Sun of Man” both come to humanity at the darkest night to bring both light and life.
In digging into the history of the winter solstice and various yule traditions, it is clear that this was once a sacred time for the early pagans. Eventually, the symbols and celebrations of the ancient pagan holiday merged with the traditions of Christianity to make the customs that we now know today to represent “Christmas”.
Ancient celebrations and symbols of Winter Solstice
The winter solstice has been celebrated across the globe for centuries, by many different people from many different cultures. In each, we can see the significance of the sun for the people, and the way that food, movement, community and reflection are used to symbolize this important moment in each year.
Roman winter solstice celebrations:
The ancient Romans spent the entire week up to the day of the winter solstice celebrating the holiday Saturnalia, which was a homage to the god of time, harvest (he is an agricultural god) and (astrologically speaking) hard work. This was a time of feasting. Good food, celebration, satiating base desires and spending time in celebration. All slaves were given non-slave status during this celebration.
Persia winter solstice celebrations:
Mithra, the ancient Persian god of Light was celebrated on December 25th. For some, this was the most sacred day of the year. Eventually, Mithra (which was also celebrated by the Romans) merged with Sol Invictus, which means “god of the unconquered sun”.
Scandinavian winter solstice celebrations:
From the time of the winter solstice all the way through till January, the celebration of Yule was participated in by the ancient Scandinavians, specifically the Norsemen.
Giant logs (Yule logs) were gathered, and one end of the log was set on fire. The log was watched and the sparks that came off of the log while it burned were believed to signify a new calf that would be born to them during the year. The Yule log often took many days to burn, and feasting would happen while the log burnt.
St. Lucia’s day is also one of the ancient festivals of the Scandinavians, paying homage to the martyrdom of St. Lucia, and later became blended (seamlessly, in fact) with norse solstice traditions when Christianity became more prevalent amongst the Norse people.
Peruvian winter solstice celebration:
the Sun god “Inti” was celebrated at the winter solstice, which happened in June for the Inca people because they live in the southern hemisphere.
During this celebration, which was preceded by 3 days of fasting, the people would arise before the sunrise, and when the sun came up the people crouched down and offered cups of a sacred drink they made of fermented corn. The sun’s rays were used to build a fire (focused using a mirror) and animals were also sacrificed during this celebration.
Japanese winter solstice celebration:
The Japanese culture has a traditional practice that places importance on beginning the new year with positive luck, as can be seen by the Mount Fuji fires that are lit each year on December 22nd. For the farmers specifically, this time is vital as it recognizes the vital role of the sun in their farming.
Chinese winter solstice celebration:
Chinese winter celebration translated quite literally means “winter arrives”, it is called Dong Zhi. There is believed to be an increase in positive energy with the increased sunlight and daylight hours, and so this holiday celebrates and welcomes in that positive energy.
Iranian winter solstice celebration:
Shab-e Yalda, the “Night of Birth” celebrates, with feasting and staying up waiting for sunrise, the birth of the sun god Mithra, and her triumph over darkness.
Native American winter solstice celebration:
the Zuni people of New Mexico celebrate the winter solstice as the commence of a new year with Shalako, which is a dance that is both sacred and ceremonial. For several days prior to the actual solstice, the sun rise and setting is observed, and on the day of the solstice the rebirth of the sun is announced by the Pekwin (sun priest via a traditional call).
Natural Symbols of the Winter Solstice
Evergreen trees: symbol of immortality
Evergreen plants, amazingly, retain their colour for the entire year, unlike every other plant. It is for this reason that evergreens represented immortality and were thought to have a special power over death. Evergreens were brought inside the house to bring in that energy of continuity and immortality.
Yew plants: symbol of death
Yew plants are known for being extremely toxic to both animals and humans, and also for being extremely tolerant and long lived. They are dark green shrubs, whose female plants produce small red berries. The yew plants were used as a symbol for winter solstice because they symbolize death (the death of the old year) and acted as a connecting point between the material world and the spirit one.
Oak trees: symbol of luck
Because they live so long, sacred oak trees have for a long time been a symbol of longevity and endurance. The fire that would burn for up to 12 hours was lit using the small piece of log that was left over from the previous year. This burning of the previous year’s log was symbolic of destroying and ridding one’s self of last year’s problems.
On the eve of the solstice, the trunk of a large oak tree was ignited, and kept burning as a celebration of the sun’s return. To have the flame not go out within those 12 hours was considered to be good luck for the year ahead, bringing with it good health and abundance in the brighter days ahead.
Rosemary: symbol of remembrance
Rosemary is also known as the “herb of the sun”, because of its need to be in full sun. It is a known culinary herb. Because it symbolizes remembrance, Rosemary has long been a symbol of the winter solstice.
Birch: symbol of rebirth
The Birch tree is known for being one of the first species to reappear after the ice age, and as such is touted as a symbol of new birth and rejuvenation. They are the first trees to come back to life in the spring (when the spring equinox is celebrated), and are known for their ability to create a hospitable habitat for many other forms of wildlife.
The rejuvenating and nourishing qualities are one of the many reasons that the birch tree is a symbol of winter solstice.
Mistletoe plants: symbol of eternal life
In the ancient culture of the Druids, when mistletoe was seen growing on the most sacred tree (which was the Oak), it was believed to be the soul of the tree. It’s evergreen leaves with white berries of mistletoe (because the berries ripened in December), and ability to survive make it an apt representation of eternal life and a valued symbol of winter solstice.
This plant was also very revered for its medicinal properties.
5 days after the first new moon preceding the winter solstice, a Druid priest would climb an oak tree to cut down the mistletoe. The mistletoe was not to be allowed to touch the ground, and was to be collected and handed out by the priest. It was then posted in homes, said to bring protection, fertility and wellness.
Holly: symbol of hope, protection and luck
During the festival of Saturn, holly boughs were given as gifts, meant to bring the recipient both good luck and protection from dark spirits.In the Celtic tradition, at the time of solstice the Oak King was defeated by the Holly King (a monstrous intimidating man covered in holly leaves and brandishing a bat made of holly), who was then given rulership until the summer solstice (when the Oak King, and his partner the Mother Goddess would again take over).
Later on, as Christianity became more prevalent, some viewed this solstice symbol as being representative of the crown of thorns that Jesus wore, the red berries representing the blood that was shed on his brow. This plant is said to represent the masculine element.
Pine: symbol of fertility
Frey, the norse god of fertility and the sun, was celebrated during the solstice in Northern Europe through the decoration of the pine tree during the season of winter solstice. The progressive lessening of the hours of sunlight led the people to light the tops of the trees, which was believed to draw in the light and the sun.
This is the origin of the Christmas Tree that we know today. The pine tree is also known to represent fertility, longevity and peace.
Ivy: symbol of friendship
Because this plant is evergreen, and often found amidst plants that are dead or in decay, it has been used to represent immortality as a winter solstice symbol. The weaving nature of the plant is the reason why this plant also represents friendship. This plant is said to represent the feminine.
Yule trees: symbol of luck
the Yule log was the trunk of a giant oak tree. The people would go out into the forest, seeking the most robust oak tree they could, and they would cut it down and burn it, typically over a period of days during the winter solstice.
This tree was an important symbol of the winter solstice and many believed that their luck in the year ahead was linked to how long the flame of the log kept lit.
Candles: symbol of light
the light and warmth given by candles made them a common symbol of winter solstice, signifying both the warmth and light of the sun, as well as the eternal flame that is our soul.
Wreaths: symbol of nature
Wreaths, with their circular form, were used as a symbol of winter solstice to signify the wheel of the year, the cyclical nature of the year and of life, and our connection to the Great Mother. They were usually made of evergreen branches.
This representation was an ode to the natural movement of life and nature, and a recognition of our need to move in tandem with it. They were sometimes given to loved ones as gifts, and often were hung around the home, after they were decorated with both pinecones and berries. Not so far off from the Christmas wreaths that we know of today!
Bells: symbol of celebration
Bells were rung during the winter solstice as a way to call in, in celebratory fashion, the sun, the light and the new year. Bells were also said to ward off negative energies.
Elves: symbol of gratitude and spirit world
The elves of winter solstice, also known as “Nisse” began amidst the Scandinavian peoples. The elves were known to be connected to the family as an ancestral spirit, or a guardian of the property that they lived on.
The nisse rewarded the family for their kindness towards them by protecting them from harm and evil spirits, or by causing mischief, depending whether or not the family regarded them with kindness or not. Especially during the winter solstice, the family would leave out a bowl of porridge, with milk, butter and honey as an offering to their nisse.
Symbolic activities of the winter solstice
Caroling: symbol of kinship
The word “carol” originally was defined as “to dance to something” and was done during the winter solstice by the pagans of ancient Europe. Young children would go door to door singing, and in return were both welcomed and rewarded with small treats, usually a baked good.
This was a time that was meant to celebrate community and to bring joy to people through singing and sharing in the season. Sometimes this singing was accompanied by the ringing of bells and banging of drums.
Kissing under mistletoe: symbol of peace
Frigga, ancient norse goddess of love, declared that the plant mistletoe would furthermore require anyone who stood under it’s white berries to kiss, and declare a moment of peace and a day of truce. This happened after a battle that ended up killing sunlight (hence the death and rebirth of the sun) that led Frigga to cry tears onto the mistletoe that appeared as the white berries that grow on this magical plant.
Interestingly, this plant also contains the female sex hormone (progesterone), which makes it suitable for such kissing action to be taken in its presence.
Gift giving: symbol of gratitude and kinship
Gift giving was a costumary tradition during the winter solstice, things like natural ornaments, or gifts from nature were given as a means of giving thanks for the year that had passed and spreading good cheer and positive anticipation for the year that was to come.
Food & Drink symbols of the winter solstice
Drinking Waes hael (or wassail): symbol of bountiful harvest
A mulled, alcoholic drink made from spices and cider that was served from a large bowl (communal style) by the people of ancient times during the cold winter at solstice celebrations.
The people were said to have gone “wassailing”, which included entering an orchard and singing/ making music, in an effort to scare away any dark spirits and impress the trees spirits, which would result in a bountiful harvest the following season.
This popular yule tradition is still alive today in modern times, with many recipes for the delicious beverage throughout the internet.
Gingerbread: symbol of warmth and endurance
Gingerbread was a herb that was difficult to get, and for that reason became a very special treat that was served during the winter solstice feast in baking and in tea.
The warming qualities of the gingerbread were a special symbol of the endurance that would be needed to get through the cold winter months. Because the gingerbread spices were so hard to come by, being served these cookies was a gift in and of itself.
Yule log cake: symbol of the original Yule log
As time passed, not every family was able to procure their own oak tree to burn for the winter solstice, and as such the “buche de noel” was created, as a substitute for the real thing. The “buche de noel” becomes a very popular item during the winter time of year. This pastry originated in France and is made of a sponge cake, rolled into a log and decorated on the outside to look like a tree. (To make your own, check out this simple recipe!)
Colour symbolism of the winter solstice
The color red: symbol of fertility and rebirth
Red, the colour of blood, is a symbol of the winter solstice due to the connection it has to our own life force, through our blood which is also red. The red that grows on holly plants and berries is also a symbol of fertility.
Green:symbol of life
The colour of green, which is seen in the evergreen trees and other solstice symbols represent everlasting life and new growth. It is used as a symbol of the hopeful new beginning that will come with the new year ahead.
White: symbol of peace and purity
The colour of white is used during winter solstice as a symbol of peace and purity. They also represent the snow of winter, which the first day of occurs during the winter solstice celebration.
Gold and silver: symbols of the sun and moon
The colour gold is representative of the sun, in all its brightness, radiance and warmth. The sun is also worshipped by many cultures and as such the colour gold points to the royalty and reverence that is attributed to it. The silver that is used as a symbol for the winter solstice represents the moon that shines bright in the dark sky during the shortest day of the year.
Dieities who are symbols of the winter solstice
A Greek goddess who is one of the sisters (there are 7 of them) of the Pleiades. She is known to nest for a total of 2 weeks during the winter, during which time the seas become tranquil and peaceful.
A Japanese deity who is said to have secluded herself far off in a cave where she slept, and was awakened in winter by the celebratory sounds of the other gods. They convinced her to come out of the seclusion she was sleeping in and to return sunlight to the people.
In Norse tradition, Baldur is associated with Frigga and the legendary story of the mistletoe that killed Baldur, who was later brought back to life.
An ancient Roman goddess who was celebrated in December by the higher ups of society during a “woman only” ritual. This ritual was very secret and prohibited the presence and even discussion of men.
Beara or Cailleach Beur:
The Queen of Winter who is known to the Celts to be one of the aspects of the goddess triune. She is said to rule the dark days of winter (the days between Samhain and Beltaine). It is during these days that she, with her one eye and matted hair, brings the storms of winter.
In Greek tradition, Demeter caused the earth to die during the 6 months of winter while she grieved for her daughter Persephone (who was abducted by Hades).
Connected to the Norse people of Scandinavia, Frau Holle is associated with both the traditional holly and oak of the solstice season, and the snow of winter is said to come from Frau Holle’s mattress, which is being shaken out by her, resulting on its “feathers” (snow) falling on the earth.
Mentioned above, the Holly King is revered amongst the British and Celtic people as the archetype of the forest, who battles the Oak King for dominion over the forest. The Oak King defeats him only at the winter solstice, and the next battle ensues at the Spring Equinox, when the Holly King then defeats the Oak King and takes over again. (And on and on)
The sun god of the Egyptians, Horus was known to be in charge of the rising and the setting of the sun each day. Later on in Egyptian history, Horus became connected to Ra, who is another sun god.
In Italy, the woman known as La Befana is similar to the western tradition of Santa Claus, in that she flies around, delivering candy and gifts to children. She is known to ride on a broom and to wear a black shawl.
Mithras was a god to the ancient Romans who was revered as a part of a mystery religion. The birth of Mithras was celebrated during the time of the Winter Solstice, and it was said that Mithras experienced a resurrection from death during the time of the spring equinox.
In some Norse mythology, Odin is known as the bringer of gifts, giving gifts to his people during the Yule celebrations. He was known to ride a magical horse who flew across the sky.
Amongst the Hopi people, Spider woman is celebrated and revered during Soyal, which is the winter solstice celebration. During this time, the Hawk Maiden is also celebrated, as well as the triumph that the sun makes over the death of winter darkness.
How to build an altar for Yule & Winter Solstice
One of the ways that many people in modern times celebrate yule is by building their own altar, full of the many symbols of yule or the winter solstice. It is especially important to have a candle, because the candle (check out this handmade vegan mulled cider candle) represents the sun and its return, with all its light and warmth.
Beyond that, a yule altar can have pine cones (or any natural treasures that appeal to you), or any other objects that contain the symbolic winter solstice colours (red, green, white, silver and gold) and connect you to the earth goddess.
Things that represent the winter (like pine, birch bark or holly) can be added. An offering can be added to the elf spirits that preside over your family and property, and your alter can even be finished off with your own Yule log!
There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to building your own yule altar, the most important thing to remember is that your altar is a sacred space, and to make space to reflect on the “sun” in your life: the great Spirit who brings light and warmth and light to you and your loved ones.
Wishing you a fabulous celebration and a beautiful time of connection and community this solstice season.
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Aja Celeste is a mom to 6 beautiful children and a twin mom! She is also creator and writer of That Zoi Life and a professionally trained Evolutionary Astrologer who has been doing astrology for 7 years. She is also a health care assistant, has a Bachelor of Ministry Degree, and is passionate about supporting people in conscious parenting. She also does Psychosomatics using Recall Healing.
Please contact her at [info@ThatZoiLife.com] if you would like to find out more about working with her.