The Winter Solstice is unique among days of the year - the time of the longest night and the shortest day. The dark triumphs but only briefly. For the Solstice is also a turning point. From now on (until the Summer Solstice, at any rate), the nights grow shorter and the days grow longer, the dark wanes and the Sun waxes in power. From the dark womb of the night, the light is born.
Many of the customs associated with the Winter Solstice (and therefore with other midwinter festivals such as St Lucy's Day, Saturnalia, Hanukkah, New Years and Twelfth Night) derive from stories of a mighty battle between the dark and the light, which is won, naturally, by the light. Other traditions record this as the time a savior (the Sun-Child) is born to a virgin mother.
The Romans celebrated from December 17th to December 24th with a festival called Saturnalia, during which all work was put aside in favor of feasting and gambling. The social order was reversed, with masters waiting on their slaves. The Saturnalia is named after Saturn, who is often depicted with a sickle like the figures of Death or Old Father Time. For new life to flourish, for the sun to rise again, it is necessary to vanquish this gloomy old fellow. Therefore, the feasting and merriment of the midwinter season are religiously mandated in order to combat the forces of gloom.
The day following the Saturnalia, was the Juvenalia, a holiday in honor of children. After vanquishing the Old King, it's time to celebrate the new in the form of children, the New Year's Baby, the Son of Man. Naturally this is the time of the year at which the birth of Christ is celebrated, since he is also the New King, the Light of the World who brings light.
The return of the light is the most prominent feature of most midwinter festivals. In Sweden on St. Lucy's Day, young girls don white dresses and a wreath of candles and awaken their families with cakes and song. Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, is celebrated by lighting candles over a span of eight days. The Christian custom of the Advent wreath, with its four candles, one lit each of the Sundays before Christmas, is another way of re-kindling the light.
As you mark the Winter Solstice, you should enjoy yourself as much as possible/ because this will bring back light (and lightness) into the world. Different traditions mention feasting, gambling, playing pranks, giving gifts, visiting, drinking, dressing up, fornicating, putting on plays and staying up all night. During the dark of winter, invoke all the forces of pleasure and love, which make life worth living.
Decorating for this festival is easy, since you can use all your Christmas decorations. Evergreens and wreaths represent rebirth and the circle of life. Fill your home with candles and Christmas lights. Place them on mirrors, hang up lots of sparkly ornaments and prisms and tinsel so you can create as much light as possible.
Earlier traditions focused on the battle between the dark and the light, but we know both are valuable. Honor the dark before calling in the light. This is the season when animals hibernate and nature sleeps, and we can turn inward too. Perhaps some of the depression people feel during the holidays comes from not providing a space for feeling the sadness associated with this season. Set aside time (hard to do amidst the frenzy of the holidays) for sitting in the dark and quiet. I like to spend the entire day of the Winter Solstice in silence and reflection.
When you light your candles and your fire, do so with the intention of bringing light into the world. What are the ways in which you can help make the world lighter? How do you bring light into the lives of those around you? Make a conscious effort to increase the amount of light you create. Nancy Brady Cunningham describes a simple yet elegant Winter Solstice ritual in Feeding the Spirit, which is appropriate for a large group or a couple, for children and adults, and for people of all religious persuasions. It goes something like this:
Decorate a room with winter greenery. Place a large bowl of water and a candle in the center of the room. Have some gold glitter and scented oil nearby. Give each of the participants a candle (with some kind of holder if you're worried about drips). Everyone sits in a circle with a lit candle in front of them and talks about their losses, putting out their candle when they're done speaking. When all are done, the central candle is extinguished and everyone sits in the darkness reflecting on what they have lost.