Winter Solstice: A Curation of Folklore and Custom
Vines, leaves, roots of darkness, growing, now you are uncurled and cover our eyes with the edge of winter sky leaning over us in icy stars. Vines, leaves, roots of darkness, growing, come with your seasons, your fullness, your end. Annie finch (2003)
the shadows start to grow long at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, long-lived sunsets striate the horizon and skies, and by 6, I crave to be snuggled up on my couch or in bed. we are in the depths of winter and the darkness that accompanies it, the sweet song of hibernation lulling through the air it seems. but, with the winter solstice, we get to celebrate as the wheel of the year turns and welcome the rebirth of light, the emergence from darkness and our desire for domicile and slumber.
what I find the most delightful about the solstices and equinoxes is the unity it brings regardless of religion or creed. they remain as temporal common grounds and remind us, regardless of how many hours we might spend under flickering office lights, where we came from and that our internalized clocks are still synced to the rise and fall of the sun. together, we experience the feelings that the change in light bring. as it wanes, we feel that magnetic draw to retreat home, to slow down, to eat more, a magnetism emerges towards turning inward, the extroverted days of summer seem but a distant memory as we cozy up with warming wines and filling treats.
at this time of year, there is a brilliant convergence as we celebrate the rebirth of light into our lives. we see this through Christmas, kwanzaa, Hanukah, yule, Diwali, and more. while it’s common knowledge that christmas was slotted for this time of year to ease the conversion of pagans to christianity, and that keeping some of the traditions was a form of compromise to ease in this conversion, I find it delightful that we have held onto so many traditions and their core principles have remained relatively similar, even as they may have shape-shifted or been domesticated. it’s because these traditions serve a purpose through providing stories we thrive upon and bring us hope.
we decide what is tradition and what is just another event in our lives. we create rich stories and mythologies to perpetuate these traditions and vice versa, which to me is just the most beautiful thing. it’s utterly magical that we create stories to live within and experience not just for ourselves, but for entire nations and groups of people when it comes to the stories of the holidays. for example, with Santa claus, it would be super weird if just some random dude was walking around with a red robe trying to give you gifts. instead, we’ve all partaken in creating the stories of santa—through retelling it and living it. and it serves a purpose for us through introducing magic and wonder into our lives as children, but also as adults again as we get to relive and reimagine these myths through the children around us or through embodying our memories once more. if you want to think about this further, just listen to christmas unicorn by sufjan Stevens which basically reminds us that we all contribute to this story—some parts of it are silly and others dark and haunting—but we learn and live through these stores.
I could keep going, but, I wanted to celebrate and revel in our storytelling abilities during this time of year. here is the result! it is a curated assortment of mythology and folklore about winter solstice, yule, winter itself, christmas, and other related traditions. I hope you enjoy!
(featured photo by Rikki Austin via unsplash)
JULBOCK & Juulebukking
the Christmas goat
“…Folk scholars believe that the origins of the Julbock lie with the Nordic god Thor and his goats, Tanngrisnir (Gap-Tooth) and Tanngnjóstr (Tooth-Grinder). These two goats pulled Thor’s chariot and provided food every evening by being slaughtered only to rise again the following morning. One ancient Swedish practice related to all this is the Juleoffer, or Yule sacrifice, in which a person dressed in goatskins and carrying an effigy of a goat would be symbolically slaughtered and then returned to life in the morning. This practice was most likely predated by actual sacrifices, as we know the Norse practiced both animal and human sacrifice. This custom of Juleoffer went out of practice with the rise of Christianity and the Julbock was decried as a demon.
Historical records from the 1600’s in Sweden speak to a belief in the Julbock as he was said to roam the country on the night of Christmas, demanding offerings and scaring Christians. Later on, the Julbock would be reframed as a good-natured being who distributed gifts during Christmastide, accompanied by the Jultomte.
“After the dancing round the Christmas tree is over, presents are brought in by a Julbock, now often represented by Father Christmas. Bock means goat, and the bringer of presents was supposed to ride on the Yule goat, the goat and the rider having now coalesced. You will remember the association of the goat with Thor. The Julbock throws parcels into the room, and very often as a joke a small present may be wrapped up in a dozen different covers with different inscriptions and verses on each directed to different people before it arrives at the rightful owner. (Cyriax)….”
sources cited: Swedish Christmas Customs, A. Kellgren Cyriax, Folklore, Vol. 34, No. 4 (Dec. 31, 1923), pp. 314-321
juulebukkING in Wisconsin
an excerpt from “julebukk” in Wisconsin Folklore: A Reader by James P. Leary:
“On August 22, 1942, the linguist Einar Haugen posed an important question to a seventy-two-year-old woman in the Wisconsin Norwegian stronghold of Coon Value: “Julebukk?” Her answer was immediate :”Oh yes, they still do that in some places. It used to be great fun in the old days for there were only the young people of the neighborhood…” Variously spelled and variously translated as “Christmas mummery,” “Christmas fooling,” “Christmas ghosting,” and “ragamuffining,” Julebukk literally means “Christmas goat,” in reference to bestial spirits said to roam the wintry Norweigan night playing tricks on country folk. In former times, Norwegian youngsters donning masks suggestive of mischievous animals visited neighbors between December 26 and the Epiphany. Barging into homes to demand food and drink, they enjoyed their hosts’ efforts tO guess who they were. …
I first heard of julebukking in the late 1960s when sisters Esther and Ruth Frederickson, who worked for my dad in Race Lake, offered seasonal reminiscences with treats of fattigmann (“poor man’s” cookies) and krumkake (thin waffles rolled into cones). A decade later, Phil Martin countered numerous julebukking stories from Norwegian fiddlers in Stoughton and Blair. The tradition has also been reported from Waupaca County Norwegians and, as “Joulu-Pukki,” from Finish settlers in Clark County.”
JuuleBukking and other Christmas Traditions in Oregon, Wisconsin
an excerpt from the essay “christmas traditions in and around Oregon, Wisconsin,” written by Byron d. wechter, which appears in Wisconsin Folklore: A Reader by James P. Leary:
“Christmas decorations in the home were not elaborate. There was the Yule tree, a holly wreath on the front door, and possibly a few springs of mistletoe hung about the house. Few people had more elaborate decorations than these.
An old Scandinavian custom in the area, observed during the holidays, was called Juleboking, meaning “yule fooling.” People dressed in crazy costumes generally the men as women and the women as men. They visited their friends and went through a silly dance routine. Then they expected to be invited into the house and given food and drink. If they were not treated they were likely to pull some prank or practical joke. …
The sending of Christmas cards has grown tremendously in volume during the past few years. In the past people sent cards only to their best friends. Now cards are sent to everyone you know, no matter how slight the friendship is. I can remember when we thought fifty cards were a great deal to receive at Christmas time. Now we think nothing of receiving several hundred. …
The custom of Juleboking is stilled carried out, but not quite as extensively as in the past. An interesting sidelight on this practice occurred recently when two young men from Oregon held up a tavern near Brooklyn. The proprietor thought they were two people out Juleboking and tried to pull a mask off one of the two. The bandit stepped back and tried to fire the gun he was holding but evidently it wasn’t loaded, which was fortunate for both him and the proprietor.”
Native American winter MYTHOLOGY
The crane & the otter
This version of the legend comes from Robert Harry Lowie's 1900 collection The Assiniboine.
“Some birds lay eggs early in the season, some later, but the crane is the last to hatch. When the young ducks and geese were flying away to a warmer country, the young crane was still too weak to fly. Winter was approaching. The mother-bird asked Otter to keep the bird for her during the winter; in return she would reward her in the spring. Otter kept her ward in a warm hole. Once Osni' (Cold) came to the camp, killed Otter, and carried off the young crane to his home, where he made him stir the fire for him with his bill. He was never allowed to go anywhere else. He was starving and became ugly; the fire burnt his back, so that the crane's skin is of a reddish-brown color now. In the spring, when the south side of the hills was warm while the northern side was still frozen, the young crane knew his mother would return soon. He went into the sunshine and called her. He continued to do so later in the spring. Osni' cried, "Come in here, stop that noise, my grandson." The crane cried all the louder. Osni' pursued him and nearly caught him, when suddenly a clap of thunder was heard and the lightning struck Osni' and tore him to pieces. The Crane was there, and asked her young one how he had been treated during the winter. He told her that Otter had treated him well, while Osni' had abused him. The old bird looked for another otter, and said to him, "Henceforth the cold (osni') will never kill you." Thus she paid the Otter for his services. This is why the Otter can live in the water throughout winter without freezing.”
The Hell-diver and the Spirit of Winter
Adapted from Victor Barnouw, 1977, Wisconsin Chippewa Myths and Tales and Their Relation to Chippewa Life, Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press.
“Every winter, the birds fly south. One winter, a hell-diver (also called a grebe) told all of the other birds that he would stay for the winter to take care of two of his friends who had been injured and couldn't fly south. Both of his friends, a whooping crane and mallard duck, had broken wings. To feed them, he got fish by diving through a hole in the ice. But the Spirit of Winter got jealous of his success at fishing and froze the water after the hell-diver had dived through his hole below the ice. But the hell-diver swam to shore where there were a lot of reeds and bulrushes. He pulled one of them down through the ice with his bill to make a hole in the ice and so he got out and flew home.
When he got home, he saw that someone was peeking in the door of his wigwam. It was the Spirit of Winter, who did not like him and who was trying to freeze him out. The hell-diver got a big fire going, but it was still cold in the wigwam because the Spirit of Winter was right there making it cold. But the hell-diver tricked the Spirit of Winter by mopping his face with a handkerchief and saying, "Gee, but it's hot in here!" The Spirit of Winter thought the fire was hot enough to melt him, so he ran away.
One day the hell-diver decided to have a feast. He got some wild rice and sent a duck to invite the Spirit of Winter, but it was so cold that the duck froze to death before he got there. Then he sent Partridge with the invitation. She got very cold too, but she dove under the snow to warm up and then went on again. She reached the Spirit of Winter and invited him to the hell-diver's feast.
When the Spirit of Winter came to the feast, it was like a blizzard coming in the door of the wigwam. He had icicles on his nose and face. Hell-diver built the fire higher and higher, and it began to get warm inside the wigwam. The icicles began to melt on the Spirit of Winter's face. He was getting awfully warm, but he liked the wild rice that hell-diver had at his feast and wanted to keep eating.
Hell-diver said, "Whew! It's very warm in here. It must be spring already." The Spirit of Winter got scared and grabbed his blanket and ran out of the wigwam. With his fire, Hell-diver had brought the spring and, outside, things were already melting and there were just patches of snow here and there. The Spirit of Winter had a hard time getting back to his home in the north, where there is always snow.”
the dream fast
why the ojibwe discourage dream journeys in the winter — THIS WAS A BIT TOO LONG TO INCLUDE BUT CAN BE READ HERE.
winter solstice & yule
the circle of life
this is an abbreviated excerpt of "A Celebration of Winter Solstice" from The Circle of Life by Joyce Rupp and Macrina Wiederkehr.
"There is a tendency to want to hurry from autumn to spring, to avoid the long dark days that winter brings. Many people do not like constant days bereft of light and months filled with colder temperatures. They struggle with the bleakness of land and the emptiness of trees. Their eyes and hearts seek color. Their spirits tire of tasting the endless gray skies. There is great rejoicing in the thought that light and warmth will soon be filling more and more of each new day.
But winter darkness has a positive side to it. As we gather to celebrate the first turn from winter to spring, we are invited to recognize and honor the beauty in the often unwanted season of winter. Let us invite our hearts to be glad for the courage winter proclaims. Let us be grateful for the wisdom winter brings in teaching us about the need for withdrawal as an essential part of renewal. Let us also encourage our spirits as Earth prepares to come forth from this time of withdrawal into a season filled with light.
The winter solstice celebrates the return of hope to our land as our planet experiences the first slow turn toward greater daylight. Soon we will welcome the return of the sun and the coming of springtime. As we do so, let us remember and embrace the positive, enriching aspects of winter's darkness. Pause now to sit in silence in the darkness of this space. Let this space be a safe enclosure of creative gestation for you."
PAGAN AND WICCAN TRADITION
this except is from, "light through the long night” by Steven Rasmussen, which was published in the mountain xpress (Asheville) in 2003. Steve Rasmussen, otherwise known by his magic name of *diuvei, was interviewed for the origin story project this fall and is the high priest of a Wiccan coven, coven oldenwilde, in Asheville:
“When the world goes dark in wintertime, people of almost every religion find ways to celebrate the light. Christians mount a star of Bethlehem on their rooftop; Jews light candles on a Hanukkah menorah; Hindus fill their homes with Diwali lamps. What they all share is the intuition that physical light is a metaphor for -- maybe even a connection to -- the force of spirit.
"Bright is that which is brightly coupled with the bright" is what Abbot Suger, the inventor of Gothic architecture, carved on the door of the first cathedral to be illuminated with stained-glass windows, echoing Plato's connection of the Sun's light with the radiance of the Good. (Suger, too, used to be drawn into a mystical trance by "the multicolor loveliness of the gems" that glittered on his church's altar furnishings.) Even scientists seek evidence of the genesis of the universe by tracing rays of ancient starlight all the way back to the Big Bang.
For Pagans, who see all the world as animated with spirit, Winter Solstice -- the longest night of the year -- is a time to turn the "Wheel of the Year" and bring back the light of the Sun, that blazing being Who gives us life amid the cold, dark void of space. If spirit and light are essentially one, Pagans believe, then it only makes sense to recognize the divinity in the greatest light we see. (Up until modern times, artists conventionally depicted the Sun with a face, as you can see in old woodcuts.)
Local Wiccan groups carry on many old Winter Solstice traditions that center on the return of the Sun God and on honoring the light in the darkest time of year.
"We rise before daybreak on Solstice morning to welcome the returning Sun," notes Byron Ballard, high priestess of Notre Dame de l'Herbe Mouillée. "We also celebrate using a Yule log and various candles to re- light the Celestial globe." The Yule log is a piece of oak big enough to burn on a hearth all through that longest night of the year.
"At each of the Solstices, we enact the battle of the Oak King and Holly King," says Coven Oldenwilde's high priestess, Lady Passion. At the Winter Solstice, the Oak King, who represents the waxing light of the Sun, ultimately wins the battle and rules over the next six months till the Summer Solstice, when the throne is won back by the Holly King (representing the waning Sun).
Although these groups' rites won't be open to the general public, you too can celebrate the light in the darkness on the night of Winter Solstice (Dec. 21-22 this year). Find a stout oaken log to throw on the fireplace, invite some friends over for eggnog and coffee, and keep yourselves warm all night with good cheer till the newborn Sun arises in the east.
And if it's a clear evening, you might take a moment to walk outside and lose yourself in the twinkling, glittering interplay between the lights that decorate the neighborhood around you and the ancient stars that sparkle through the vastness of the night.
In the Halcyon Days, we enter a period when we step out of our ordinary cares and the workaday world. This ancient practice calls us to pause, honor the rites of Yule, and celebrate with peace and kindness.”
this excerpt is from Beth owl’s daughter’s piece, “Embrace the Quiet That Is Nature’s Gift: The Halcyon Days Are Here:”
“Once upon a time, Alcyone (also called Halcyon) was the daughter of Aeolus, King of the Winds, and the wife of Ceyx, King of Thessaly. Alcyone and Ceyx loved each other devotedly and were never willingly apart.
Nevertheless, a time came when Ceyx decided he must make the long journey across the sea to consult the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi. When Alcyone learned what he was planning, she was overwhelmed with grief and terror, for she knew the power of the sea winds and feared his death.
Ceyx was deeply moved, but his purpose held fast. Alcyone yielded at last, and let him go alone.
Alas! As everyone knows, men should listen to their wise and loving wives, for Ceyx was shipwrecked and died the tragic death that Alcyone had feared. The Gods appeared to Alcyone in a dream in the image of the drowned Ceyx, and told her of his death. Alcyone ran to the seashore and found Ceyx’s body drifting slowly towards her.
Stricken with grief, Alcyone jumped into the sea to join him in death, but the Gods took pity on her and before she could be overcome by the waves, she was transformed into a kingfisher.
Ceyx was reborn also into a sea swallow and together, their love lives forever. To this day, they are always seen together, flying or riding the waves.
To honor their love and to prevent any others from meeting such a tragic fate at this time of year, Zeus forbade the winds to blow for seven days prior to and seven days after the Winter Solstice.
The Tritons, attendants to Triton, the son of Poseidon, were called upon to ensure that this was made so. And henceforth, every year at this time, the Mediterranean Sea is supposed to lie still and calm; no breath of wind stirring the waters.
For this is when the kingfishers brood over their nests near the waters. After the young birds are hatched, the charm is broken.
So every year, at Winter’s threshold, these days of perfect peace are meant to come, and they are named after Alcyone, or, more commonly, “Halcyon Days.”
So starting now, my friends, let us bid welcome to the Halcyon Days.”
FOLKLORE OF PLANTS
“Because mistletoe sprouts from bird dung, people of the Middle Ages believed that it had the power to bestow fertility and life-giving powers. Mistletoe could protect against poisons and serve as an aphrodisiac, it was believed. People at that time used mistletoe to scare away evil spirits. It was common practice to hang mistletoe in doorways throughout the house and stable to keep witches at bay.
Today's kissing tradition when two people stand under a sprig of mistletoe comes from Norway. In Norse mythology, Balder, god of peace, was slain by an arrow made of mistletoe. His parents, god-king Odin and goddess-queen Frigga, restored Balder to life and gave mistletoe to the goddess of love. It was decreed that anyone who passed under mistletoe should receive a kiss. Scandinavians consider mistletoe a plant of peace under which enemies could declare a truce, or bickering spouses kiss and make up.
The ancient Celtic Druids would ceremoniously cut mistletoe from an oak tree with a golden sickle on the sixth night of the moon. Two white bulls would be sacrificed amid prayers that the receivers of mistletoe would prosper (Kramer).”
“According to Pliny, it was believed that mistletoe in a drink would make any barren animal fertile and that it was a remedy for all poisons. Special powers are attributed to mistletoe by a wide range of cultures, both within Europe and further afield. The use of mistletoe as an all-heal and a cure for barrenness is reputed to have a very ancient history. The link between mistletoe and fertility persists to this day in Britain in the tradition of kissing underneath bunches of mistletoe at Christmas. In the early 19th century, it was traditional for each man who kissed under the mistletoe to remove one berry. Once all the berries are gone, so is the potency.”
“Holly was another plant valued by the Druids. They considered it a sacred plant in which woodland spirits took winter refuge. Holly is a plant full of superstitions and traditions. The ancient Romans used holly to celebrate their end-of-the-year holiday, called Saturnalia. Sending gifts of holly boughs to friends was common.
Early Roman Christians adopted the holly as a sacred plant. They believed that the cross on which Christ was crucified was made of holly wood; the crown of thorns being holly leaves and the white berries stained red by the blood of Christ.
During the Middle Ages people associated holly with good fortune. Trees planted near homes were protected from thunder and lightning. The berries and leaves were used to ward off witches and evil spirits. Yet, if misused, holly would bring bad luck and misfortune. Medieval Europeans believed family bickering would result if holly entered the home prior to Christmas eve. Holly boughs left up past New Year's would cause one misfortune for each leaf on a branch. Picking holly in blossom might cause death. The Germans believed bad luck would befall anyone who stepped on the berries.
Medieval Europeans also believed that a piece of holly plucked from church decorations would bring good luck all year long; holly hung in the barn would cause animals to fatten and flourish; holly picked on Christmas Day would protect one from witches and evil spirits.”
“Trimming trees in December dates back to ancient Egyptians, who celebrated the solstice by bringing palm branches into their homes. The greenery symbolized the essence of all growing things. Ancient Romans celebrated their Saturnalia by trimming trees with trinkets and topping each tree with an image of their sun god. Druid priests hung golden apples and lighted candles on oak trees at the solstice.
During the Middle Ages, Dec. 24 was a time to celebrate the feast of Adam and Eve. It was symbolic to decorate a fir tree with red apples, calling it a Paradise tree.
It was the Germans, 400 years ago, who adopted the holiday tradition of trimming an evergreen tree as part of the Christian Christmas celebration. German immigrants brought this tradition to America and by the mid-1800s Christmas tree lots began to appear, the first in 1851 in New York.”
“While the poinsettia is perhaps the most popular of holiday plants, it is the youngest of holiday traditions. This native of Mexico was introduced to the United States in 1830 by Joel Robert Poinsett, the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico. A plant enthusiast himself, Poinsett brought poinsettias home to his greenhouse, giving a few away to friends. Although the plant soon became a popular item with the wealthy during the Victorian era, it wasn't until the Southern California nurseryman Paul Ecke Sr. began propagating the poinsettia as a viable indoor potted plant that it became the celebrated holiday plant it is today.
And while the poinsettia is a cute, bushy plant today, the ancient Aztecs cultivated the gangly wild bush as a source of red dye. They also made potions of it to reduce fevers. When Christianity entered Mexican culture, the poinsettia became part of religious tradition. Legend has it that an impoverished young Mexican girl left the church in tears on Christmas eve because she had no gift to lay on the altar of the Christ child. An angel appeared and told her that Jesus would welcome any gift given sincerely in love.
The child then picked some weeds from the side of the road and placed them on the altar. These were miraculously transformed into bright red poinsettias. To this day the Mexicans call poinsettias Flores de Nocha Buena, Flowers of the Holy Night.
We may no longer believe the myths that holiday plants will protect our homes from thunder and witches, yet some other legends persist. Take the poinsettia, for example. Many people think the plant is poisonous and will make a person deathly ill if consumed. Numerous studies have revealed this to be untrue, but the belief persists.”
CHRISTMAS IN Appalachia
this article provides extensive information on christmas traditions, history, and legends in Appalachia that is a bit too long to include in full here.
it includes facts such as:
“Children born on January 6 are special and often develop powers for healing the sick.
If you sit under a pine tree on Christmas Day you can hear angels sing. But, beware! If you hear them, you’ll be on your way to heaven before next Christmas.
Breads and cakes baked on Christmas Day have special healing virtues. Some folks preserved them for use in curing illness during the coming year.”
Ideas for celebrating the solstice
want to celebrate the solstice? mystic mamma reminds us that ritual acts give life meaning and why we celebrate:
Like our ancestors have done from the beginning of time, we honor the cycles and the seasons that remind us of the ever-changing flow of life that we are a part of~~~
Ritual acts give life meaning. They also honor and acknowledge the unseen web of Life that connects us all.
If you don’t have a community that provides this, don’t be afraid to create your own and reclaim your connection to the source of all life.
A simple act done with intention in your heart is enough.”
in their article, solstice: ritual, ideas & celebrations, they provide different ritual ideas such as solstice lanterns, a candlelight ceremony, a bell ringing ceremony, and a fire releasing ceremony to welcome in the return of the sun!