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The Winter Solstice is a magical season . . . one that marks the journey from this year to the next, journeys of the spirit from one world to the next, and the magic of birth, death, and rebirth. The longest night of the year (December 21 in the Northern hemisphere) is the start of the solar year and accompanied by festivals of light to mark the rebirth of the Sun.
In ancient Europe, this night of darkness grew from the myths of the Norse goddess Freya who sat at her spinning wheel weaving the fates, and the celebration was called Yule, from the Norse word Jul, meaning wheel. The Christmas wreath, a symbol adapted from Freya's "Wheel of Fate", reminds us of the cycle of the seasons and the continuity of life.
In Northern Europe, the year's longest night is called "Mother Night" for it was in darkness the goddess Freya labored to bring the Light to birth once more. The Young Sun, Baldur, who controlled the sun and rain and brings fruitfulness to the fields, was born. Her blessing is invoked for all birthing women, and a white candle that last burned on the solstice is kept as a charm to provide a safe delivery.
That the timing of the Christian celebration of the birth of Christ occurs in the Yule season is no coincidence.Christmas was once a movable feast, celebrated many different times during the year.
The decision to establish December 25 as the "official" date of Christ's birth was made by Pope Julius I in the fourth century AD, hoping to replace the pagan celebration with the Christian one, since this date coincided with the pagan celebrations of Winter Solstice with the Return of the Sun Gods occurring throughout the world.
Numerous Christmas traditions derive from the earlier pagan celebrations. Yule, celebrating the birth or rebirth of a god of light, made use of fire, both in candles and the burning of a Yule log.
The Christmas tree has its origins in the practice of bringing a live tree into the home so the wood spirits would have a place to keep warm during the cold winter months. Bells were hung in the limbs so you could tell when an appreciative spirit was present. Food and treats were hung on the branches for the spirits to eat and a five-pointed star, the pentagram, symbol of the five elements, was placed atop the tree.
The Solstice is also a time of plenty. The Hopi Kachinas return to the Earth during the solstice, and the Deer Mothers dance for the fertility of the earth. The hearth fires of Hestia (known as the Roman goddess Vesta) are quenched and then rekindled. The "first fruits" festival, Kwanzaa, is held to honor the seven major deities of Yoruba.
And Winter Solstice is a time for visions. Rhiannon, a Welsh incarnation of Epona, the Celtic Mare Goddess, rides through the dreams of her people by night, transporting them to the place between the worlds where they can create their own visions, giving them a gift of what they need most, helping them to make real their dreams. In Scotland, the last night of the year is Wish Night, a holiday when wishes made for the coming year are at their most powerful.