top of page

Renewal, Winter Solstice, and the New Year Dilemma

For a few days at this turning of the year, greetings abound…and so I wish you all a Happy New Year! Interestingly, January 1st has not always been the time marker of a new year. After exploration, I now observe a different (or additional) new year…  

For hundreds of years in the Western world, December 25 was the start of the new year, part of several days when the winter solstice was observed (until astronomical solstice was determined). Even older than this, Ancient Rome and earlier civilizations like the Babylonians in 2000 BC/BCE, celebrated a new year festival on March 25, the spring equinox.[i] It is the sun that shapes the seasons, and the phases of the moon that shape a month, both on slightly different annual rotations. The solar cycle, the Earth’s rotation around the sun, has a 365-day rotation and the lunar cycle, the moon’s rotation around the earth, has a 355-day rotation. Attempting to accommodate this difference has confounded many a calendar maker.

It was the Ancient Egyptians who devised a “civil year of 365 days divided into three seasons, each of which consisted of four months of 30 days each. To complete the year, five intercalary days were added at its end, so that the 12 months were equal to 360 days plus five extra days.”[ii] This lunisolar calendar, where the months are guided by the moon and the year by the sun, was borrowed by the Ancient Romans around 700 BC/BCE. The Roman king Numa developed the Roman Republican calendar making January the first month of the year, named after the Roman god Janus who looks back and forward simultaneously. He added both January and February to the 10-month Roman calendar to make a 12-month year. Each of the months and days of the week were named for the planets, Roman gods, or Latin numbers, such as Mars for March and the Sun for Sunday.

It would not be until about 150 BCE that January 1 would become the official start of the new year. In 46 BC, Julius Caesar made additional changes to the calendar, thereafter called the Julian calendar, as a way to rectify the Roman civic calendar with the solar calendar. Relying on the Egyptian solar calendar, the year became 365 days which we observe today.[iii]  

Yet, three to four thousand years ago, many Peoples who did not have formal calendar makers but who relied on tracking planetary movements to guide their annual activities, built wooden or stone structures to measure the movement of the sun and the changing constellations over the course of the year. Stonehenge is only one of the 600 similar structures found globally.[iv] Holes and archways confirmed the exact moments when the sunlight (or moonlight) fell in a straight line from the horizon. The extreme north and south positions mark the summer and winter solstices.

For six days in December (Northern Hemisphere), the sun appears to stand still, rather than move on its continuously changing arc higher or lower on the horizon. It also seems to be rising and setting in the same place each morning and evening, moving no further south. Thus, the word solstice comes from the Latin “sol stetit meaning sun stood still.”[v] Out my living room window, I can see where it sets on the ocean horizon, the furthest southwest that it travels. It is so low on the horizon, it does not clear the crest of the trees at high noon. By summer solstice, I have to crane northwest to see where it sets.

Tracing the sun’s movements is likely as old as humanity itself. It is intuitive at a survival level, as the sun grants life by making this a habitable planet. Feeling the dark and cold during an eclipse is the closest we come to not having the sun. Traditional archeological and anthropological studies supposed that ancient peoples naively feared the sun would not return, devising rituals to call it back. Yet, from what I have learned from many different cultural stories and spiritual teachers, it is far more nuanced.

For instance, sun ceremonies honour our relations to the planets and stars, including the sun. Just as Earth and all beings are considered living, so the Sun is a living force who is offered respect as a power that enables life. Solstice ceremonies are a courting of the Sun, expressing love for the Sun as one would for a lover. Offerings are made as a way to “give back” in appreciation for the gift of life each day. Through various personifications, the hard work that Sun does, rising early each day and traveling all day across the sky, to eventually rest from “His” or “Her” hot and sweaty labour at sunset, is acknowledged. Stories of stealing the sun and returning it to earth also remind us of this daily gift.

Solstice bonfires are an aspect of the sun’s fire, as are the hearth fires each household traditionally had for cooking and heating. Ritual fire demonstrates that we are not at the centre of things. Rather it conveys our embeddedness in powerful life cycles and dynamics. It allows us the opportunity to bring our egos back into balance with the natural world and its laws and limits. We express our reliance on, and integration within, a much larger Life community. Ceremonies are one expression through which we can reclaim our responsibilities within this Big relational matrix that holds us.

Thich Nhat Hahn says that “the sun is our second heart, our heart outside of our body.”[vi] Thus, the sun is also within our own bodies, as our heart. The heart and its operation generate its own energetic field which is more powerful than the brain. Further, the bundle of emotions centered there are energetically charged and can warm those around us or repel others. At a purely physical level, the pumping heart warms and animates our body, generating vitality and movement. Thich Nhat Hahn explains how our heart sun echoes the sky sun:

If the sun were to stop shining, the flow of our life would stop. The sun is our second heart, our heart outside of our body. It gives all life on Earth the warmth necessary for existence. Plants live thanks to the sun. Their leaves absorb the sun's energy, along with carbon dioxide from the air, to produce food for the tree, the flower, the plankton. And thanks to plants, we and other animals can live. All of us—people, animals, plants, and minerals—"consume" the sun, directly and indirectly. We cannot begin to describe all the effects of the sun, that great heart outside of our body.

A solstice ceremony acknowledges this spiritual aspect of the Sun (hence the capitalization), this heart which lovingly smiles upon Earth, giving life.

The Sun is spiritual Light or “enlightenment”. We talk about when “the lights go on” or a “light bulb moment” to describe when a new understanding gains a foothold or a new clarity emerges. Yet, solstice is not just about Light. It is primarily about the interplay of Dark and Light and the necessity of both. At winter solstice, the light is short and the dark is long. At summer solstice, the light is long and the dark is short. This creates the seasons which are necessary for life. For too long, Western thought has revered light and shunned the dark. All that it constructed as “dark”, including racialized bodies from “The Dark Continent” and other colonized places, was dirty, evil, menacing, uneducated, vulgar, and uncivilized.  Such lopsided, blind, discriminatory thinking over centuries has yielded a world of division and conflict, racism and war, fanned by those who stand to gain by such thinking.

So, calling back the light during solstice ceremonies is not about banishing the dark or fearing the sun might not return, but a ritual honouring of the Sun and the cyclical death and rebirth dynamic that perpetuates earthly life. Life, as in the womb or as seeds underground, begin their life in the dark. Rest and renewal occur in the dark of night or during darker seasons, to fuel energetic growth times. The dark is what gives fire its power; Christmas lights their magic. The dark can hold us tenderly as much as the light. The Irish myth of the Holly King and Oak King remind us of the balance of equals.[vii]

Celebrating winter solstice has been pejoratively considered “pagan” by the Christian church for two thousand years. With the fall of the Roman empire, Roman Catholic popes wished to align preChristian observances with Christian ones, in part to undermine what they termed “pagan” ways. So, the medieval new year celebration of March 25 became the Feast of the Annunciation, or conception of Christ. December 25, as the winter solstice period, became Christmas. These changes became the Gregorian calendar in 1582, now the dominant calendar in the West. Many preChristian practices such as greenery and evergreen trees in the home, hanging lights, wreaths, feasting and festivity were integrated into Christmas, but given new meaning. Jesus became the Bringer of the Light.

I now choose to embrace both my Christian and preChristian ancestry. As we approach the solstice time, I take time to acknowledge all the light festivals at this time of year, as we are all bound together globally by planetary movements. Moving toward winter solstice, it is a conscious waiting in the stillness of the increasing cold and darkness. Like a mother waiting for a birth, I begin to decorate the house with evergreen clippings from my yard, asking for permission to cut. I hang outside lights in anticipation of a new year of light. Closer to solstice, I create a yule table of evergreens in a wreath shape resembling the wheel of the year.

We then celebrate the new year at winter solstice, December 21, as this is the turning of the wheel of the year common to us all. I have an early bath with lemon essential oil infused bath salts. Lemon (or any citrus) kills harmful bacteria and viruses and helps with exhaustion and depression. I add fresh cedar for purification, protection, and new life.

We then have a feast with wassail (mulled apple cider) or gluhwein (mulled wine) featuring the pungent spices that characterize this time. We eat specially chosen foods that speak to this moment, part of the ethnobotany of solstice.[i] For instance, apples are considered the golden fruit of sweetness, which last through the winter. Meat pies echo my ancestors who slaughtered several animals at this time, to carry them through the cold times. In other traditions, this echoes the “Wild Hunt,” the ancient dead who may travel at this dark time. Where I now live, the salmon is the wise provider and honoured in feasts. Root crops are the main vegetables available at this time which acknowledge our ancestors as our roots and their contributions which have fed our lives. Cranberries have spiritual significance portraying “survival, vibrant well-being, and strong blood”.[viii] Pomegranate seeds among cold hardy spinach leaves remind us of Persephone who ate 3 pomegranate seeds while in the Underworld, where she spends three months of her year while we hold vigil for her. A Yule log (Bûche de Noël) is a jelly roll made to resemble a Yule log. Traditionally, a very large Yule log was burned in a fireplace or an outside bonfire, sometimes over the 12 days of Christmas between December 25 and January 6, to wish for abundance and health. It is sometimes connected to World Tree mythology, which connects the earthly world with the heavenly world and the underworld. The ashes from this yule log are sprinkled on the fields in spring, contributing to fertility. As much as possible, we try to feast by candelight, natural light, once evening descends.

On this evening, we make orange pomanders, decorating them with ribbon and cloves in symbolic patterns, placing them on the yule table to represent the pathway the sun has travelled over the year. We create a reflective spiral with luminaria in our back yard which we walk meditatively, thinking about the cycle of renewal…what to leave behind and what to embrace moving forward. We read stories of the Deer Mother, the one who fed my peoples for millennia and the story closest to my own ancestry, who catches the sun in her antlers and brings it back for another year.[ix] 

Winter solstice is the death and rebirth of the sun. We court the Sun around the bonfire, speaking lovingly of the many gifts which grace us, offering our gratitude. We think also of our own death and rebirth in a new year, how we might burn away the dross (written down and placed in the fire) and purify our better qualities (the smoke acting as a smudge). Like alchemists, our inner selves might become ever more bright and shining too.

We clear a space, create an openness...inviting something new to grace us in the coming we consciously walk a flickering, lighted path into a tender new year.


[i] Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. "New Year festival". Encyclopedia Britannica, 1 Jan. 2024,

[ii] Bickerman, E.J. , Proskouriakoff, Tatiana , Schmidt, John D. , Ziadeh, Nicola Abdo , Buitenen, J.A.B. van, Ronan, Colin Alistair, Wiesenberg, E.J. and Lin, Chao. "calendar". Encyclopedia Britannica, 1 Dec. 2023,

[iii] Tikkanen, Amy. "Why Does the New Year Start on January 1? ". Encyclopedia Britannica, 28 Dec. 2018,

[iv] Bickerman, E.J. , Proskouriakoff, Tatiana , Schmidt, John D. , Ziadeh, Nicola Abdo , Buitenen, J.A.B. van , Ronan, Colin Alistair , Wiesenberg, E.J. and Lin, Chao. "calendar". Encyclopedia Britannica, 1 Dec. 2023,

[v] Carolyn McVickar Edwards, The Return of the Light; Twelve Tales from Around the World for the Winter Solstice, New York: Marlowe & Company, 2000.

[vi] Thich Nhat Hanh, "The Sun My Heart," in Engaged Buddhist Reader, ed. Arnold Kotler (Berkeley: Parallax Press, 1966), pp. 162-170.

[i] Rätcsch, C. and Müller-Ebeling, C. (2003). Pagan Christmas: The Plants, Spirits, and Rituals at the Origins of Yuletide. Rochester, VM: Inner Traditions.

[vii] Spagnola, Carmen. (2022). The Spirited Kitchen: Recipes and Rituals for the Wheel of the Year. New York: Countryman Press.

[viii] Spagnola, Carmen. (2022). The Spirited Kitchen: Recipes and Rituals for the Wheel of the Year. New York: Countryman Press.

Photo Credits:


Featured Posts
Recent Posts
Search By Tags
Follow Us
  • Facebook Basic Square
  • Twitter Basic Square
  • Google+ Basic Square
bottom of page