The day after Thanksgiving, it begins to creep in.
A wreath appears on your neighbor’s front door, the naked trees on your block suddenly wink with lights, your local coffee shop starts studding the latte foam with shattered peppermint, and at the drug store you hear Bing Crosby parumpa-pum-pum-ing in a creamy baritone about a little drummer boy.
It happens regardless of weather, war, or the state of the economy – and it’s Christmas, of course.
But there is an alternative. December 21st, and the two days following, make up the Winter Solstice – a time less heralded, but still chock full of cultural and astronomical significance. (It is also the name of our company, hence this post – but I’ll get to that later.)
The language root of the word Solstice, from the Latin, ‘The Sun God stands still,’ is based on a trick of the eye; from our earth-centric vantage point, it appears for a time on December 21st that the sun is no longer moving.
This is because our earth, spinning on an axis tilted at an angle to its orbital plane, exposes more of its southern half to the sun for part of its orbit, resulting in our winter.
The winter Solstice is the apex of the sun’s southward migration, and results in the shortest day of the year – and the longest night.
On the Solstice, darkness wins a celestial battle. To ancient eyes in northern climes not equipped with scientific understanding, it must have appeared that an all-powerful source of light, warmth, and nourishment was literally stopped in its tracks.
After a season of relative scarcity the sun was now frozen and pathless.
This must have been an awful phenomenon, (in the archaic sense, meaning ‘full of awe’) for this primal experience of lengthening shadows and deepening cold made its imprint on the rituals and celebrations created to mark the day. Solstice celebrations are all about currying the favor of the gods to bring back the light.
Christmas and Solstice do share this symbolic language of heat and light. (Think Christmas tree lights, candles, chimneys, cooking) And there are traces in Christmas of the ancient scarcity panic – which shows up in a frenzy of feasting, gift-buying, and spiked egg-nogging.
We, in the West at least, deck the world with tinsel, flashing lights, and sparkly ornaments. All the more fire and light to beat back the night and damp, the hunger and wintry gloom.
For a little insight into who makes our glittering objects of Yuletide cheer, check out this article on the Chinese town of Yiwu, which makes 60% of all Christmas decorations. Hint: It ain’t elves.
Celebrating the Solstice Today
In North America, the long candy-cane fingers of Christmas tend to steal from the Solstice much of its thunder. But the Solstice has been for many cultures the primary festival of winter. Here are a few:
In China ‘Dongzhi’ is celebrated on December 22nd with family gatherings that sometimes last the length of the long, long Solstice night. A traditional comfort food, tangyuan is enjoyed, balls of sticky rice flour boiled and served in broth.
Iran celebrates the Solstice with Shaba-Yalda, or ‘The Longest Night of the Year.’ Families gather and eat watermelon, pomegranate and other crimson-colored foods that symbolize the rosy glow of dawn and the coming light. There is also the reading of poetry, like that of Hafez, with family and personal stories threaded in to the recitation.
In the Native American tradition, the Pueblo and Hopi tribes observe the winter Solstice by celebrating the sun. Soyal, a ritual that is meant to give the sun direction once it is ready for return, consists of purification rites, hunting, feasting, and a blessing.
Playing in the Dark
It would be misleading to say that Solstice rituals are merely an invocation of light. What the winter Solstice celebration offers that our modern celebrations of Christmas, (or its smart-alecky secular cousin Festivus) do not is a nod to the dark side.
Ancient peoples felt that soul-and-marrow darkness in the extra long night of the winter Solstice, and even used the occasion to release the cumulative tensions of the year, sometimes wallowing in frenzy and bloody mayhem:
In ancient Greece the winter Solstice rite of ‘Lanaea’ or the ‘Festival of the Wild Women’ was not too friendly for the gents: A man, acting as the God of the Harvest and Chaos Dionysus was “torn to pieces and eaten by a gang of women.” Yikes.
In Ancient Rome, the Solstice was celebrated with the ‘Saturnalia’ in honor of the God Saturn, where there was an emphasis on role reversal and upending the status quo. A Master of Ceremonies would order guests to do lewd or dangerous things – which they were absolutely obliged to do. And slaves could, for a day, dress as their master and ritually punish or reward them according to their fancy
The essence of deep winter is death. It’s about loss, stripping away, quiet, dark, slowness, stillness and reflection. Its carries a cold, colorless, biting, post-harvest, party’s over energy.
The Solstice as a Threshold between Light and Dark
The winter Solstice is a crossroads or a ‘threshold’ space – it is neither here nor there, this nor that, but a space of becoming.
Thresholds are scary places because they represent a crossing over into the unknown. On the threshold all our worst fears arise, everything that must be acknowledged and integrated before we can move on to the next phase.
Thresholds are not places to linger. As the ancients knew, times of transition are where chaotic or entropic forces rule. Thresholds allow you to rest in darkness, and then demand you take clear, decisive action – before those forces act on you.
Physical crossroads used to be places where people would go to dump their garbage – and dead bodies. The deities of the crossroads were the original environmentalists, the true Gods of Recycling – and rather fearsome; their power was to transform your leftovers, trash and pollution – all things scorned and rejected – into something useful. They made poison into medicine, dark into light.
What’s In a Name?
The Solstice in its most ancient form is an acknowledgement of the dark.
The Solstice in its most ancient form is an invitation to change.
We chose ‘Solstice’ as the name of our cannabis company because it invokes the feeling of natural and inevitable change.
Cannabis has a very long history in relationship to humans, one that has in recent decades been marred by fear mongering and misinformation. We have collectively experienced the long, cold winter of prohibition and we believe legalizing, regulating, and studying cannabis – bringing its gifts and properties out into the light – will greatly benefit all people, and ameliorate the soaring human and financial costs of the long since lost ‘War on Drugs.’
If we were stripped bare of all artificial light and all diversions, then on the Solstice we would have to do as the sun does once it has reached the zenith of its journey. We would stop. We would take stock of what’s come before. And after some time we would feel the inevitable tug of overpowering forces taking us in a new direction, one that offered light and heat – and new life.
With love we at Solstice wish you and yours much joy and light this Holiday Season : ) XXXOOO