If the sun shines through apple boughs on the Winter Solstice, there will be a fine blossoming in spring.
The Winter Solstice is another of the gardener’s new years. On this day, the sun plunges into the darkest dark to begin the long climb toward summer. The world seems dead and dreary; all action is underground. This is the time — time-honored — for introspection, a natural opportunity to look into ourselves; to acknowledge the unseen, the denied, the hidden, the masked; to dredge it and if need be, dispense with it. Just as seeds cannot germinate until they’ve spent time under moist ground, we need the darkness to examine and revitalize our spirits. Although we tend not to visit our gardens now, it’s actually a good time to do so. To step outside and breathe the cold, refreshing air. The garden reminds us — and gives us faith — that what is gone will return.
Among the Greeks, Egyptians, Aztecs, and Maya, the solstice marked a five-day period outside the calendar. In ancient Greece, winter solstice was the month of Poseidon, god of the sea. The Aztecs and Mayans regarded these days as unlucky, dedicated to no good (unlike every other “named” day in the complex Mesoamerican calendar) and therefore vacant, inauspicious, and unfit for any activities, religious or civil. No gardening, housekeeping, judicial, or spiritual transactions took place. The entire society descended into darkness to await renewal.
Around the globe it was necessary — as the light retreated on the Winter Solstice (whether in December or in June below the equator) — to confront demons and evil spirits, then drive them out to ensure fertility. Again and again, throughout the horticultural calendar, fertility — the greatest concern to all living beings — is summoned and action taken to assure it.
Some cultures expelled evil from the community by sacrificing a solstitial scapegoat — animal, human, or effigy. In the Scottish Highlands, the decrepit old year was burned in the form of a straw dummy — the “auld wife.” In Russia and Eastern Europe similar rituals and celebrations are practiced.
With Christianity, burning the “hag” (from hagiography) to make way for a new beginning was transformed into the custom of torturing and burning witches — along with Jews, both the Medieval scapegoats of choice — during the critical days between Christmas and Epiphany, as well as on the commencement of Summer in May. As in the killing of the Green Knight at Yuletide in the Medieval poem, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” the old year is beheaded to make room for the new.*
In India, Winter Solstice is greeted with raucous noisemaking against devils. In France, bells were jangled and pots and pans pounded to rout out evil. The banging of pots and pans by the Mothers of the Disappeared in modern Argentina, who have marched in Buenos Aires’ Plaza de Mayo, since 1983, seems an apt contemporary correlation. The din not only draws attention to the demands of these abuelas that the whereabouts of their missing children and grandchildren be revealed, but is an exorcism of the demon death squads, who terrorized the nation for so long.
Solstice practices also include bringing in the good. In Austria’s Tyrol, in France, Germany, Belgium, and New Caledonia, it was common to beat the fruit trees to make them grow.
On the seventh day of Sukkoth, the Jewish Feast of Ingathering, folk struck the ground with willow sticks. The Talmud tells us that “Every blade of grass has its prescribed destiny and for each there is an angel in heaven who beats it and says, ‘grow!'”
In England, the Winter Solstice is the feast day of St. Thomas, when the St. Thomas onion was planted. It grew in size and pungency in relation to the Sun and was harvested on the Summer Solstice. These days, the shallot has replaced the St. Thomas onion as the solstitial allium.
It is said by Muslims that Allah creates the light anew every day. By this it might be meant that hope is renewed daily.
In the Scottish Isles, men uncovered their heads when they saw the morning sun, “in hope…that the light of grace in me will not be put out.”
*My favorite translation of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” is by J.R.R. Tolkein.