The darkest night of the year is coming right up.
At the Winter Solstice (December 21 this year), we have the shortest period of daylight of the entire year, and hence the longest, darkest night. In Neolithic times, the Winter Solstice was marked by midwinter celebrations that were highly significant culturally. These early agricultural communities depended on the previous nine months of the year to survive deep winter; starvation between January and March (often called “the famine months” by those communities) was not uncommon.
To avoid having to feed domestic animals such as cows, goats and sheep, most of these were slaughtered just before the Winter Solstice. This was also the time when most of the fermented beverages were ready for consumption. As a result of this sudden availability of fresh meat, beer, and wine, there would be large feasts on or around the year’s darkest night.
Pagan societies saw this as evidence of the sun’s vanishing presence, and the view of the birth (and rebirth) of various sun gods became associated with these feasts. The people had a sense of the world itself dying, to be reborn in the spring. After Roman conquest of the majority of Europe, these concepts were subsumed into the Saturnalia celebration.
After the emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, Winter Solstice celebrations underwent yet another cultural and religious shift. Now the emphasis was on the birth of Christ; the idea of Jesus as the light of the world entering the world on the darkest night of the year (to die and be reborn in the spring) dovetailed easily with existing traditions. Thus Saturnalia and other midwinter pagan celebrations were gradually edged out by Christmas in the new, Christianized Europe. Nonetheless, many of the aspects of the Christmas celebration carried over from pagan times: the Yule log, the decorated tree, mistletoe, caroling, and so on. The caroling tradition can be traced back to the pagan practice of a community’s poorest children going from dwelling to dwelling, singing for cakes and other treats. (In Christian times, the children would beg for “soul cakes,” promising to help release people’s recently dead relatives from purgatory with their singing.)
Interestingly, the idea of a god being born of a virgin, dying, and being reborn, was quite common in the ancient world. It was applied in the case of Jesus, having already been believed to have been the case with the Roman god Dionysius. He was believed to have been born on the Winter Solstice of a virgin mother, been killed, and resurrected after three days. As in the case of Jesus, December 25th and January 6th (the latter becoming the Feast of the Epiphany) were both traditional birth dates in the Dionysian myth and represented the feast period of the Solstice.
This year, yoga practitioners worldwide are marking the Winter Solstice with a celebration of 108 Sun Salutations. Evolutions Yoga says on its website,
This is the day, December 21, 2012, we’ve been waiting for…building up to, and secretly wondering about. The yogis say it’s all going to be just fine, fine, fine; so unroll your mat and join your yoga family for a yoga party! This year’s Winter Solstice Event Practice will include the 108 Sun Salutations practice! (www.evolutionsyoga.com)
So we see (yet again) how culturally and spiritually malleable the Winter Solstice is throughout the world and across cultures. Whether you celebrate Hanukkah (the Festival of Lights), Christmas (the birth of love and light), the African American holiday Kwaanza, or the Humanist observance of Human Light, you can celebrate the coming of light, love and hope to the world on the darkest night of the year…and reflect this in your yoga practice.
Image from thefitnessworkout.com