The last day of autumn here was a gorgeous one. The clear sky glowed with golden sunshine and that special shade of blue that seems to come only at this time of year. Autumn blue.
Now the sun has set. The shortest day of the year is over and we are embarked upon the longest night, a time that was considered perilous by our ancestors. That is why they invented so many rituals and ceremonies involving light that take place at this time of year. They celebrated light as a way of honoring the sun, flattering it and persuading it to come back and light the world once more. They felt that there was a very good chance that it might not unless they took the appropriate actions. And so, pagans celebrated (and still celebrate) the solstice, the ancient Romans had their Saturnalia, the Jews had (and have) Hanukkah, and the Christians rather arbitrarily designated December 25 as the date of Jesus' birth.
But it isn't only these groups. If you stick a pin in a map of the world and go and study the cultural history of the people of that area, you will almost surely find buried in their traditions, if not currently practiced, a set of beliefs regarding the winter solstice as a special time of year.
It is, of course. It is the earth's New Year's Day. No matter what our human-made calendar may say, when we wake up tomorrow it will be in a new year. Beginning tomorrow, our daylight hours will start to lengthen, imperceptibly at first, but, soon, the days will be noticeably longer. The dark days of late autumn and winter will be behind us and we will be looking toward spring.
The days and months rush by too quickly. Autumn, we barely knew ye, and now we must make the acquaintance of winter.
So, light the candles and sing the sacred songs to ensure that the sun will come back tomorrow after its longest journey into darkness. The earth and we await the reassurance of those first red rays of light on the eastern horizon.