So today marks the shortest day of the year and the celebration of the Winter Solstice also known as Yule!
All over the world, and since time immemorial this date has been celebrated to welcome the coming of the new year and the renewal of life.
In England the best known centre of such ceremonies is the great stone circle of Stonehenge near Salisbury in Wiltshire. Since I was a small child I have been fascinated by this ring of massive stones. I remember, in the days when it was allowed, walking up to the huge arches in the misty and usually drizzling early morning and walking around in stunned amazement trailing my hand across the rough stone. I would always try to imagine what it had been like when this extra-ordinary place was built. Mind-boggling!
Many, many cultures the world over perform solstice ceremonies. At their root: an ancient fear that the failing light would never return unless humans intervened with anxious vigil or antic celebration.
The Winter Solstice falls on the shortest day of the year (21st December) and was celebrated in Britain long before the arrival of Christianity. The Druids (Celtic priests) would cut the mistletoe that grew on the oak tree and give it as a blessing. Oaks were seen as sacred and the winter fruit of the mistletoe was a symbol of life in the dark winter months. And of course the kiss under the mistletoe was part of a fertility wish that is really the basis of so many of these ancient traditions...
It was also the Druids who began the tradition of the yule log. The Celts thought that the sun stood still for twelve days in the middle of winter and during this time a log was lit to conquer the darkness, banish evil spirits and bring luck for the coming year.
So tonight marks the lighting of fires around the world to encourage the sun to return to its rightful place in the sky and warm lands across the globe.