The Significance of Festivals of Light

Guest post by Sarah Jenkinson of Seasontide

“In all religions this festival has been one of confidence, of trust and of hope, because of a feeling that the light must prevail; out of the seed planted in the earth something will spring forth which seeks the light and will thrive in the light of the coming year.”

Rudolf Steiner, Festivals and Their Meaning

The days are dwindling down. Each evening sees the sun setting earlier and earlier.

We have been in the afterlife of the year since Halloween. Death has overtaken life. We mourned that loss in November… But from it springs a new hope.

And so all across the Northern Hemisphere people are waiting for the light.

The light of the sun represents the light of all life. And as the sun continues to fade we seek ways to kindle the light of life within ourselves and each other.

No matter the cultural or religious context we’ve always had this need to come together and support each other, lighting up the night.

We can find examples of this yearning throughout history, the remnants of whose celebrations still remain with us today, influencing how we continue to celebrate this magical time of year:

Juul (Yule), Shab-e Yalda, Hannukah, Saturnalia, Zagmuk, Midvinterblot, Christmas, Santa Lucia.

Even Stonehenge––whose construction began before the pyramids in 3100 BC––was built so as to mark the nadir of the sun on the day of the winter solstice.

Because the celebration of the winter solstice is as old as humanity’s ability to create fire. And now, just as then, these celebrations tend to focus on bringing warmth and cheer to this coldest and darkest time of year.

But why is that? Why do we feel this need to come together and light up the night?

To light a candle or a fire, even to plug in your christmas lights… All of these activities have the same symbolic meaning and originated as forms of sympathetic magic, not only illuminating the dark nights but acting as a beacon, guiding the sun back to us.

So as the sun dwindles, we keep watch until it reaches its nadir––that lowest possible arc––and appears to rise and set in the same place each day, not moving across the sky at all.

It’s this perception of being without change that produced the Latin phrase “sol sistere,” meaning “sun stands still,” and from which the word “solstice” is derived.

It’s so low, in fact, that in the few weeks surrounding the solstice the change in position of the sun becomes completely imperceptible to the naked eye.

Which is why the two weeks after the solstice––also known as the 12 Days of Christmas––were such high holy days. For even though the solstice had passed, the sun continued to appear as though it was still holding position.

And so these roughly 12-14 days can be seen as a symbolic vigil of light celebrated as a way to call the sun back to us. To guide it back by shining our own light out into the world.

Until finally, around the end of the first week of January, we are able to perceive the lengthening days, and to know that the sun has been reborn to begin its journey across the sky once again.

Solstice blessings, xo

Sarah Jenkinson has studied mythology, history, folklore and feminine spirituality for almost 20 years and holds a degree in Celtic Cultural Studies from the University of Toronto. As the founder of  she teaches women about intuitive magic, universal cycles, seasonal archetypes, sacred energy and the wheel of the year.