The winter solstice is a time, in the northern hemisphere, when nature sends us signs to rest and metaphorically hibernate.
Yet we often do the opposite in December: rushing around buying lots of things, stocking up on food because the shops are closed for one or two days, travelling here and there despite the bad weather; and then in January, one of the coldest and bleakest months, we make lots of commitments to do (or not do) X, Y and Z and start new habits, when most people are feeling low, lacking in energy and uninspired!
If we look to our ancestors, the pagan and Celtic celebrations of the winter solstice were based around the light, or lack of it.
Feasting and celebrations marked the shortest day, and the eventual return of the sun. This time of year when the daylight is at its shortest, was a time to light candles, have bonfires and mark the turning of the year. Evergreens were brought into the house to celebrate life: plants like holly, ivy and yew were used because of their ability to survive despite the cold and the dark.
Northern peoples like the Norse and Vikings had Yule (jole or jule) which is roughly translated as circle, wheel or feast. They celebrated this point in the sun’s circle when it is at its lowest (or almost non-existent in the far north above the Arctic circle), with yule logs, feasting and other traditions. The sun of the old year has died, and the new sun is beginning. We get our modern yule log from them. The yule log was to burn for 12 days, leading to the modern Christian version of the 12 days of Christmas.
The ancient Romans also held a festival to celebrate the rebirth of the year. Their Saturnalia ran for seven days from the 17th of December.
When we look into these ancient traditions, we can see that Christmas has adopted many of them (a case of cultural appropriation?!).
If you want to learn more about the ancient winter solstice traditions, the National Trust for Scotland’s podcast on this is a fascinating listen. The podcast looks at the history of ‘Christmas’ traditions such as wreaths, the decorated tree, mince pies, the oak yule log, and more. The guest also explains why Christmas was effectively banned in Scotland for 400 years until 1958, mainly because of its pagan and then Catholic, connotations. And this is why Hogmanay (new year’s eve) has traditionally been more important in Scotland as people shifted their celebrations from the banned ‘Christmas’ to the last day of the year.
You can also read more about what differnet plants and foliage used in Christmas decorations signify, such as holly, ivy and mistletoe.
Candle gazing or trataka
In the yoga tradition, trataka or candle gazing is a cleansing and concentration practice which we can appreciate particularly at this time of year when we might use candles a bit more.
Trataka mean to gaze steadily. It is mentioned in yoga texts including the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, where it is one of six cleansing practices. Different objects can be used as the point of focus for the eyes, but a candle is recommended as its after-image will linger behind closed eyes.
Trataka is said to cleanse the eyes, eradicate eye diseases and fatigue. It also strengthens the mind through concentration. The mind is focused on the object e.g. the candle, with the intention of stimulation inner vision.
How to practise trataka
Sit comfortably and have a lit candle in front of you so you can easily see the flame. Rest your awareness first on your breath, then begin to gaze at the candle flame without blinking. When you need to, or after about a minute, close your eyes and see the after image in your mind’s eye.
When the after-image disappears, open your eyes and gaze steadily at the flame again. Repeat. You may find your eyes water during or after doing this. If you normally wear contact lenses try this when you’re not wearing them, and remove glasses if you wear them. You can do this practice for 5 minutes or longer.
Over time, with practise, your concentration will improve, and the length of time you can visualise the image with closed eyes with increase.
(NB if you have any eye conditions which would make this inappropriate, don’t do it!)
Trataka can also be practised with any object, including outside in nature.
Watch the video below to join me in a guided version of trataka, recorded on mid winter’s eve (the night before the solstice).