Winter Solstice 2003 - Welcoming the 'rebirth of the sun'

Salt Lake Tribune, Dec. 21, 2003

Winter Solstice: A gathering at Red Butte hails traditions linked to year's shortest day

Ryan King, 7, and his grandfather Peter King try on ivy wreaths at Saturday's solstice celebration in Salt Lake City's Red Butte Garden.
(Rick Egan/The Salt Lake Tribune)

By Christy Karras
The Salt Lake Tribune

The day with the least sunlight and the most darkness may seem a strange thing to celebrate each year -- unless, like those who do, you look at it this way: After the winter solstice, every day brings more life-giving light than the one before.
To celebrate the day and the holiday season surrounding it, Red Butte Garden on Saturday hosted a day of dancing, storytelling and fortune telling, paying respects to Mother Earth. The actual solstice occurs this year on Monday at 12:04 a.m. MST.

"Cultures all over the world have always celebrated Saturnalia," the Roman word for the solstice, said Carol Millikan, Red Butte's visitor services director. Millikan has been studying up on the importance of the holiday for Red Butte's commemoration; like many at the event, she wore an ivy wreath in her hair. During the early winter, "the days get shorter and shorter, the nights get longer. Then there's a rebirth of the sun as the days get longer again."
Many modern Christmas traditions come from the pre-Christian pagan celebration called Yule, celebrated by people in northern Europe and the British Isles.
"Christianity was new, and people were already celebrating certain traditions, so the timing was sort of put together. People celebrate the birth of Christ at this time of year, but the celebration predates Christianity," Millikan said. "This is the natural rhythm of the seasons, and before there was such a thing as Christianity, people celebrated the rhythm of the natural world."
Yule celebrations included gift giving and hospitality, said Raven Simons, acting high priestess of the Church of the Sacred Circle, a pagan community in Salt Lake City. Because people were largely housebound during the winter in northern climates, they used the Yule festivities to get together with neighbors.
"People come together and they bring a gift that symbolizes what they want to bring to the community," Simons said.
At Red Butte, Dale Torgerson led tours and gave lectures on evergreen plants like ivy, which give a hint at color and life amid the largely leafless garden. The Christmas tree also is a holdover from pagan times.
"The Christmas tree is symbolic; because the evergreen stays green throughout the winter, it's the promise of life," Simons said.
For Utah's pagan community, the solstice still is a sacred time of year, and pagans celebrate Yule in various ways, Simons said, emphasizing that pagan beliefs and practices vary widely.
Throughout this weekend, many who follow the nature-based religion have been gathering with friends, sometimes staying up all night on the shortest day, extinguishing all lights at midnight and then lighting a single candle to represent the light that is soon to be reborn in the form of longer days. In the morning, some hold sunrise ceremonies.
Red Butte's party included an appearance by the Oak King, a sacred pagan figure who represented solar energy and who is replaced in midsummer by the Holly King, the mature face of the god.