A handful of swimmers gathered at sunrise on the bank of the river, meeting in celebration of the winter solstice. Frost clung to the grass. Cool light glanced off the rippling surface. We lit a lantern and placed it at the end of the wooden jetty. Then, at high tide, as the current eased and began to eddy, we swam upstream. In the centre of the cold river we entered the stillness of the winter solstice.
Three crows passed in ragged mourning clothes. We heard a solitary wood pigeon's 'my toe bleeds Betty' call. Then a seal appeared, sleek and curious. She swam with us, diving, disappearing and surfacing close by. A playful solstice blessing. Enchantingly alive.
At the heart of winter, we immerse ourselves in the wide and welcoming river at the turn of the tide to mark the turning of the year from darkness towards the light, from dormancy to life. Like our ancestors, we honour the cycles and the seasons that remind us of the ever-changing flow of life around and within us.
Rituals reflect change in the outer world and our inner landscape. They bridge symbol and reality, revealing the sacred in the secular, imbuing daily life with meaning. The roots of the Christmas traditions that we enjoy today can be traced back to pre-Christian celebrations of the winter solstice that falls on the 21st of December - the date that marks the shortest day and the longest night on the wheel of the year in the northern hemisphere. The word yule may come from the Nordic word for wheel, houl. Our ancestors celebrated Yule to counter the darkness of mid-winter and welcome the return of the sun to warm the frozen earth. Fires were lit, a yule log was carried inside, decorated with greenery, doused with ale, dusted with flour and burned on the hearth. Mistletoe, seen as the seed of the divine, was ceremonially gathered for its magical and health-giving properties. Armfuls of holly, a potent symbol of life force in the midst of darkness were collected.
Our new-found rituals link us to the past and open us to present, integrating us with the natural flow of the earth's cycle, threading ancient and modern, domestic and wild, inviting spirit into our lives. Through the dull light of the afternoon, we too gathered evergreen branches to line our mantelpiece and twist into wreaths a symbol of the wheel of the year. As the day darkened, we carried the Christmas tree into the house and strung it with light. Then we stood at the window to observe the close of the shortest day. In a transient, bright moment, as the sun sank between the clouds and the hills, the light seemed to draw towards itself all our longing.
The winter solstice is a duel celebration - a time to let go of the old, and welcome the new, reflect on the past year, on our successes and shortcomings, and set intentions for the year ahead. At nightfall, we extinguished all light and spent a moment in complete darkness to acknowledge our own shadows and remember the life-giving light of the sun. To rekindle our inner fire, each of us lit a candle. Then, open to quietude and ready for change, placed them in a circle.
Until the 16th century, food shortages were common during the winter months, so the solstice was the last festival before deep winter began. Cattle were slaughtered so that they wouldn't have to be fed. Fresh meat was plentiful. Wine and beer made during the year was finally fermented and ready for drinking. The feasting and revelling could begin.
The church in our neighbouring village was lit with candles and gleaming, psychedelic oil lamp projections that caressed the walls. A bar at the back and soul singers at the alter lifted our spirits. Children wriggled through the congregation that stood on pews and danced in the aisles, and fell asleep on piles of abandoned coats. As rain fell and wind rattled the windows, we sang and swayed and held each other deep into the longest night.
Words by Louisa Thomsen Britts
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