Winter officially begins today in the Northern Hemisphere. The Sun is at its greatest distance from the celestial equator, shining directly over the Tropic of Capricorn in what is known as the winter solstice. The word solstice comes from the Latin words sol (sun) and sistere (to stand still.) On this night, the three stars in Orion's Belt align with Sirius -- the brightest star in the eastern sky -- to let us know where the Sun will rise tomorrow morning. (If anyone says there is no magic in the world, I say they're just not paying attention.)
The Bronze Age archaeological sites Newgrange in Ireland and Stonehenge in Britain were carefully designed to align with the solstice sunrise and sunset points. Throughout human history, this event has marked the point where the sun reverses ebbing and is, in effect, reborn. New life, new beginnings, new hope... these are the hallmarks of midwinter, and people have been celebrating variations on this theme as long as there have been hearth fires to gather around.
From celebrating the reemergence of Amaterasu the sun goddess in 7th Century Japan to the ancient Slavonic 10-day festival of Koleda; from Soyalangwul, the traditional winter solstice ceremony of the Zuni and Hopi Indians to Burning the Clocks, the fairly recent tradition in modern Brighton -- this time of year is has been revered in amazingly similar ways by just about everyone who has ever graced this planet. My personal favorite has to be Saturnalia -- the outrageous Roman midwinter celebration that was an ancient combination of Burning Man, Mardi Gras and a Grateful Dead concert. During this week-long festival, men and women exchanged clothes, slaves and masters played role-reversal, and enough social mores were happily abandoned to cause even Caligula to try and limit the celebration to five days.
Today, Wiccans and other neo-pagans honor this day as Yule, while last night Iranians celebrated Yalda -- a Zoroastrian festival commemorating the longest night of the year. Tonight, at sundown, the first day of Hanukkah begins with the traditional lighting of the first menorah candle. Next week the seven day celebration of African heritage known as Kwanzaa will commence with the lighting of the kinara. And, of course, there is Christmas -- the Superbowl of all midwinter celebrations, and the biggest birthday party in the known world.
Whether your midwinter feast includes latkes, yalda watermelon or fruitcake -- happy midwinter, everyone. Bless'd be, Shalom Aleichem and God bless us, everyone!