The wiccan winter solstice (from the Latin sol for sun and sistere to stand still) is one of the eight sabbats celebrated in wicca today. It occurs at the time in the northern hemisphere when the sun appears at its lowest in the sky and marks the end of one year and the beginning of the new.
From the moment of the wiccan winter solstice the sun is reborn and the wheel of the ritual year begins again. Of all of the evidence left us by our ancestors of their religious beliefs the best still to be seen are the neolithic monuments at Stonehenge in England and New Grange in Ireland. Both were clearly places where what we now call the wiccan winter solstice were observed, with their central elements exactly facing the midwinter sunset and sunrise respectively.
Throughout the world people of all races have seen this time of year as one of rebirth and a time for celebration and many of the traditions we now associate with the Christian festival of Christmas have their roots firmly in pagan northern Europe.
In Celtic tradition the wiccan winter solstice was one of the two climactic points of the ritual year in the battle for predominance between the Oak King and the Holly King, with the Holly King dominating during the time between the longest day in June, representing the time of growing and harvesting, and the Oak King dominating after the shortest day and representing a greater reliance on hunting. The Holly King dressed in red, was festooned with holly and was said to be drawn by eight stags whilst the Oak King was also known as the Green Man. Both were representations of the god Cernunnos.
When the new Christian religion was trying to convert the peoples of northern Europe it found the easiest way was to incorporate many of the old pagan ways into the new religion and many of the traditions of the wiccan winter solstice were amongst these. The old pagan name of yule is still interchangeable with Christmas, whilst the holly and the ivy are pagan symbols of fertility, representing male and female, which are still seen decorating homes.
We still have a tradition of a long midwinter break for rejoicing and celebration (the wicca sabbat is from the French sebatt meaning to revel) and we still hope to receive a visit from a man in red pulled by stags or reindeers. Of course it just would not be yuletide without a nice decorated tree brought in from the woods and maybe a seasonal yule log in the grate (actually a dedication to the Norse god Thor).
A common way for the modern coven to celebrate the wiccan winter solstice is for the circle representing the solar year to be decorated with holly, ivy and mistletoe, for the cauldron containing kindling to be placed to the south to represent the sun and the presiding priest to wear a horned helm in honor of Cernunnos.
In many ways the celebrations of the wiccan winter solstice and its offspring the Christian Christmas are the clearest and strongest link between the peoples of today and their ancestors.
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