On this solstice day in December our thoughts go to the sun, the bringer of light and life. In particular our thoughts turn to the element of fire, in the southern hemisphere to the warmth and energy the sun provides on the longest day of the year, in the north to the fires lit to provide warmth and signify a return to longer days. The importance of the Summer and Winter solstices is reflected in many cultures that celebrate them in ritual, ceremony, art and architecture. These activities are intimately entwined with the elements, reflecting the cycle of death, renewal and regeneration associated with the cycle of the sun.
The word “solstice” derives from the Latin words “sol” (sun) and “sistere” (to stand still). On these days the sun almost seems to pause in its orbit before resuming its course. The changes in day length are related to the tilt of the earth in relation to the Sun. Today the North Pole is tilted 23°27´ away from the Sun. At noon its vertical rays are directly overhead at the Tropic of Capricorn. As life has experienced since the dawn of time, on this day the sun travels its shortest path in the northern hemisphere and its longest path in the south. If the earth did not tilt like this, the seasons would not exist and the world would be a very different place.
Events marking the solstices and the cycle of the sun have been associated with the sowing and harvesting of crops, the mating of animals, the metering of winter reserves between harvests, and no doubt much more. These connections show a deep understanding of and respect for the importance of the elements in our lives. Not surprisingly, most of the information and imagery about the solstices comes from the Northern Hemisphere. For example, in many European pagan traditions, the Summer solstice was called Litha, a day to balance the elements of fire and water.
El Castillo, a Mayan pyramid at Chichen Itza in modern-day Mexico, was designed to measure, predict and celebrate the annual cycle of solstices and equinoxes. It is believed that the Mayans used the various shadows and designs formed by the pyramid to signal the beginning of a harvest or of a planting, to predict the best dates to be married or to be buried, and for other ceremonial reasons. Global attention was focused on El Castillo on the December solstice in 2012 when the end of the world or a new age of consciousness was predicted, based on selective interpretations of the Mayan calendar. The primary axis of Stonehenge is also aligned with the solstice, this time to the Winter solstice sunset. Such is the significance of these astronomical events.
Taking a bath scented with yuzu (Japanese citrus) and eating kabocha (Japanese pumpkin) are traditionally recommended on the Winter solstice in Japan. Pumpkins are rich in vitamins and carotene and are considered to be good for avoiding colds or the flu. In Japan, today is a special Winter solstice called “sakutan toji”. “Saku” means a new moon, “tan” means dawn and “toji” is the winter solstice. The name indicates that a new moon falls on the Winter solstice day. This happens every 19 years. As it is a rare day, sakutan toji is considered to be very auspicious and signals the beginning of a new era.
One of the more well-known examples from the southern hemisphere of the importance of the sun cycle and solstices comes from Peru. The Inti Raymi (“Festival of the Sun”) was a religious ceremony of the Inca empire in honour of Inti, one of the most venerated deities of the Inca. The festival lasted for nine days and celebrated the Winter (June) solstice, the Inca New Year and the mythical origin of the Inca. Inti Raymi is still performed throughout the Andes. More recently many of these celebrations have been blended with western festival of Saint John the Baptist, an amalgam of beliefs from the southern and northern hemispheres.
Whether you are experiencing the longest or shortest day of the year today, or on any day of the year for that matter, take a moment to reflect on the cycle of the sun and the elements. These wonderful and awe-inspiring forces of nature have helped define humanity and make us what we are.