Wednesday, December 21, 2011 6:20 PM
Winter Solstice in the Mayan Jungle
Tonight marks the Winter Solstice for those of us living in the northern hemisphere. With a little help from Wikipedia we know that "The winter solstice occurs exactly when the axial tilt of a planet's polar hemisphere is farthest away from the star that it orbits. Earth's maximum axial tilt to our star, the Sun, during a solstice is 23° 26'. More evidently from high latitudes, a hemisphere's winter solstice occurs on the shortest day and longest night of the year, when the sun's daily maximum elevation in the sky is the lowest."
The Winter Solstice, also known by some as Yule or Saturnalia,
generally falls on December 21 or 22. It celebrates the birth of the new solar year and marks the beginning of winter. Taking place on the longest, darkest night of the year, this is a time when we must reflect inward to find our own inner light. This is also a festival of inner renewal and spiritual rebirth. Many of the customs, symbols, and rituals now associated with the modern "Christmas" are tied to Winter Solstice celebrations of ancient Pagan cultures. Both Christian mythology and older Pagan customs are evident in modern day holiday observances.
Ak Lu'um International School also manages an interesting blend of Christian and Pagan rites and rituals in its annual Winter Solstice festival. This is my favorite festival of the year and I suspect I am not alone in that sentiment. It is lovely to have the whole school community gather to watch the children sing, play the flauta and perform poems and vignettes they have been working on through the last weeks of the term. At a time that is always so hectic, nerves frayed, with everyone rushing around shopping and decorating for Christmas or making travel plans, this event is a much needed break in the frenzy that accompanies the onset of the holiday break.
Traditionally, at Winter Solstice or Yuletide celebrations, wassail is served. Wassail, an ancient English ceremonial cider, has been used for centuries as an offering to the spirits during the Yuletide season to bless orchards and the harvest. In keeping with this tradition, Ak Lu'um welcomed students and parents with Mexican "ponche", a warm fruit punch offered to guests at all holiday festivities. It is traditionally made from sugar cane, cinnamon, piloncillo, dried and fresh apples and other fruits steeped in hot water until flavorful and aromatic. Everyone has their own favorite recipe that they serve year after year. Even the packaged versions found in our local groceries stores are pretty good!
My favorite part of the Winter Solstice is the Advent Spiral. Spirals represent the forces of nature, eternity and transformation and are often used to represent and celebrate the changing of seasons. Following tradition, the Ak Lu'um advent spiral is laid out on the ground in the school yard. It is composed of palm fronds from the surrounding jungle, shiny silver stars and candle holders made from red ripe apples. Just after darkness falls, the group gathers and a single flame is lit in the middle of the spiral. This candle is meant to represent our inner light and the source of our personal renewal. Children, teachers and parents trace the path through the spiral towards the center and the light. From this candle, each person lights their own and makes the return trip out of the spiral, placing their candle in an apple along the way. Slowly, the school yard is transformed from blackness into a warm glowing cocoon. It is a quiet time for each person to contemplate the year gone by and look ahead to the new year yet to come.
You may not have the time or space to enact your own Advent Spiral but that doesn't mean you can't find a quiet place to take a moment to find your own inner light and renew your strength and resolve as we welcome 2012. On behalf of Rob and the kiddos and the whole BuyPlaya family, I wish you all a joyous holiday season full of love and cheer.