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Midwinter Solstice 2003 Liturgy


Beginning – call  (Maxine)

The earth is turning!

Puanga (Rigel) is our marker star – beautiful and bright, it signals the beginning of the New Year in the Southern hemisphere.

Matariki is our Herald! 

Pipiri,  is the first month, where all things on earth contract because of the cold, including the people.

Let us “pipiri “ cling together from out of the cold,  tell the stories of our ancient customs, our old people, let us feast on the plenty in our store cupboards.

Greet those in the room you haven’t talked to yet, and share what you know about the winter solstice.  Drink your mulled wine and before we start the dinner we will tell of some of the ancient customs of our forebears.  


(1) Neolithic Societies. (Jo)

 In the old Neolithic societies of Europe, winter solstice was a significant time.

·                    The wise ones went to a great deal of trouble to ascertain the exact moment of solstice, often using stone circles to help them to mark both the turning of the sun and the position of the moon at that point.

·                    It is thought that people took part in ring dances on the sites of the stone circles, as well as rituals to encourage the awakening of the sun and the life-force within themselves.

·                    Winter solstices continued to be an important festival in the agricultural societies of Europe.

·                    For the six preceding months darkness had increased, stealing light from the margins of the day.  It seemed as if life itself was being swallowed up.

·                    Then a significant event occurred: the sun turned.  Light was re-born to the world, and after a few days the change was discernible to all.

·                    The rebirth of the sun marked the vital moment of renewed hope, when continuity of life for crops, animals, and people was assured.


 In the Middle East, winter solstice was symbolized by the birth of a divine male child from the dark womb of the Goddess.

 ·                    There was no father, as the Goddess herself was all-sufficient.


Priests announced the event in dramatic rituals:

 ·                    In Syria they emerged from underground cave shrines at midnight, announcing: The Virgin Goddess has brought forth! The light increases!

·                    In Egypt they held up the image of an infant for all the worshippers to see, and cried out: Here is the sun child of the Heavenly Goddess.  Let us celebrate his birth!

·                    In Persia they celebrated the goddess Aargatis’s birthing of the sun god Mithra, who was known as the Unconquered Sun and whose birthday fell on 25th December, the time when the increased light was perceptible.

·                    The child of light had many names: Horus, Osiris, Helios, Dionysus, Aeon.


(2) Rome (Jim)

 ·                    These ancient traditions were reflected in the solstice festivals of Rome.

·                    December was a quieter month in terms of work, with most of the ploughing and sowing over, leaving time at last to relax.

·                    From 17 to 23 December Romans celebrated the birthday of the Unconquered One in the Feast of the Unconquered Sun, known as Saturnalia.

·                    Saturn was the god of agriculture and the golden age, but also of time and death.

·                    It was a time of high festivity, the Saturnalia being the most popular Roman festival, when “all Rome went mad.”


 (3) Celtic and Anglo-Saxon Britain.

 ·                    In Celtic mythology the goddess Rhiannon gave birth to Pryderio at the darakest time and it was also the birth of the child of light, known as Mabon.

·                    In the old Celtic calendar, the lunar month spanning November/December was the time of the ‘Darkest depths” and that of December/January was known as the ‘Cold time”.

 ·                    For the Anglo-Saxons, winter solstice represented the triumph of one force over another, for now the Oak King, god of the waxing year, conquered the Holly King, god of the waning year. The two gods were twins, one light and one dark, who were caught in an eternal rivalry.

·                    Their battle came to be played out in the mumming plays of the winter solstice where the death of one character symbolizes the killing of the crops by the chill of winter, and his revival by “the doctor” symbolizes the coming of spring.


(4) Other Symbols: (Hilary)

 In the winter solstice rituals of Europe Fire and greenery are two key elements- for these were what most people wanted back in their lives.

 Fire:  (Log)

·                    Candles were lit to invoke fire – but the most important focus of fire symbolism was the yule-log (indicate the log) which were lit by the Druids in honour of the god Thor.  Thor stood for warmth, light and the continuance of life.

·                    YULE, the festival of Re-birth, lasted twelve days (now known as the Twelve Days of Christmas).  The name yule comes from old Saxon and Norse words meaning light or sun.  it also has origins in the old Norse Iul, meaning wheel.  This was the moment of the turning of the wheel of the year.

and a reminder of the greening force that surged in both vegetation and humans

Green Symbolism (Indicate wreath, greenery)

·                    Greenery in winter solstice rituals was brought in to celebrate the triumph of the life force.

·                    In Egypt a 12 leafed palm was used to symbolize the completion of the year.

·                    In Rome people decorated the temples with evergreens, especially holly.

·                    They also decorated  pine or fir trees at winter solstice, with streamers, a bird, bells, and ornaments of gold and silver.

·                    The pine tree was the sacred tree of the vegetation god Attis, and the fir belonged to the Teutonic god Odin.

·                    In Britain, holly, ivy, and mistletoe stood out as rare splashes of green among the bare branches of the forest.

·                    Communities gathered the plants and brought them inside for decoration, not only because they were evergreen but also because they bore fruit in winter.



 ·                    Especially significant to the Druids.  The way it grew high in the tree-tops without any apparent root or trunk connection to the earth made it appear magical.

·                    It was cut with a golden sickle and given to people to hang over their doorways.  There it served as protection against death by arrows, and also against fire and lightning.

·                    It was said to have healing powers.

 Ivy and Holly

·                    Ivy and Holly symbolized eternal life, because they were evergreen.

·                    The red holly berries were seen as drops of blood of the Teutonic goddess Hel or Holle.  She was the goddess of spinning and weaving and flax cultivation and her festival was celebrated in Scandinavian countries during the twelve days around winter solstice.  (Play the carol “The Holly and the Ivy”)


(5) Medieval Celebrations (Ralph)

·                    The rituals continued through medieval times.

·                    A Master of Misrule was appointed to look after the festivities.  He was usually the fool or jester whose job was to keep things happy, arrange practical jokes and encourage burlesque and buffoonery.

·                    It was a time when people could let their hair down – but also at a deeper level to acknowledge the importance of the greening forces of nature.

·                    The feast could not begin without the symbolic entry of greenness – and so a participant called the Surveyor shouted out WASSAIL! (Saxon Wass Hael – to your health!.

·                    The guests sat silent. He then asked the most honoured guest for permission for the feast to begin.  NO was the reply NOT UNTIL THE FIRST FOOT CROSSES THE THRESHOLD. The sound of bells would be heard and a dark-haired man dressed in green bounded in from the back of the hall.  The feasting could begin.

·                    He was the Green Knight – the embodiment of the spirit of nature.



Early Church:

·                    The Gospels say nothing about the date of the birth of Christ and it wasn’t celebrated in the early church.  However the Christian in Egypt eventually came to believe he was born on 6th January, a belief that spread throughout the East until it was generally accepted by the 4th century.

·                    In the West a different date was adopted.  This was due to a conscious decision made by Augustine and other Roman church leaders.  They fixed the date at 25 December seeing the advantage of planting the Christian festival into the already fertile soil of the pagan winter solstice rituals.

·                    The birth of the divine Sun Child was already a feature of the mythology – it was but a small step to see Christ as the “Sun of Righteousness”..

·                    In early Christian Rome, where people decorated churches and houses with holly at Yule, the holly now came to signify Christmas, its prickles symbolizing Jesus’ crown of thorns and its red berries his blood.

·                    The berries of the “male” holly were said to protect against witches, a belief that distorted the ancient meaning of the berries as signifying the blood of the Goddess.  Her own symbol was turned against her and she became the witch, a figure to be feared.


The Puritans:

·                    Throughout medieval times people celebrated Christmas with high spirited revelry and feasting.

·                    The Puritans did not approve of these practices.

·                    Bringing evergreens into houses was forbidden – no Christmas trees!

·                    They tried to stop the pagan fun instigated by the Lord of Misrule – because of the way it mocked the Church and those in authority.

·                    In 1652 Christmas was abolished by Act of Parliament.

·                    No masses or public festivals were held until after the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660.


The Victorians:

·                    The Christmas festival as we know it did not come into being until the Victorian era.

·                    It was a Victorian invention, aided by Prince Albert and Charles Dickens.

·                    Prince Albert said to have introduced the Christmas tree in 1840 from his native Germany.  There it dated back to the old pagan Yule celebrations, along with the boar’s head stuffed with apples, the lighting of candles, and the exchanging of gifts.


Matariki (Maxine)  show calendar picture

For the ancient Maori the new year began on the first new moon after the rising of Matariki (the Pleiades) – show the diagram – in the Eastern sky at dawn.  This constellation disappears from the sky on the waning moon of May and reappears in the tail of the Milky Way during the waning moon of June, which brings the start of the new year close to winter solstice.

 Matariki is associated with the providing of food – the literal meaning of  Matariki is “little eyes” referring to the appearance of this beautiful, jewel-like cluster of six or seven small stars (7 sisters).

 The actual moment of first sighting could be an emotional occasion.  Women would sing laments for the recent dead, for Matariki was where the dead went to after leaving the earth.

 The important new year festival of celebreation and feasting would then follow, the food being offered to Matariki with invocations

“Divine Matariki, come hither from the distant heavens,

Bestow the first fruits of the year upon us.”


Ra – the sun god

Winter solstice is also the time of the ‘changing of the sun”.  The sun god Ra was said to have two wives, both daughters of Tangaroa. He spent half the year with Hine-takurua, the Winter Woman in the south, far out on the ocean, for she was associated with the work of fishing. At the maruaroa of winter, Ra was said to begin his return to his other wife, Hine-raumati, the Summer Woman who dwells on land and was associated with the gathering of forest food, and the growing of crops. 

 Winter was the bird-preserving season – the kaka, tui, kereru were preserved in their own fat – women went to the store houses to bring out fish that had been sundried earlier and Maori fishers went eeling.

 Grace: (Ian Harris)

Let us feast and give thanks for plentiful food, for the beauty of the constellations in our Southern stars for our good company .  Amen 

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