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The Mystery of the Winter Solstice

(Originally published in The Mountain Astrologer Dec/Jan 2007 as "Taking Back the Holidays")

An Intense Month As the month with the most buzz in the Western calendar, December is a worthy subject for astrological study. Let us take a look at what makes this time of year so highly charged, with the goal of opening up as fully as we can to its power.

If we want to know what makes a month tick, the obvious place to start is the Sun sign. The fact that the Sun occupies Sagittarius from late November until the winter solstice tells us that the overriding issue of the period is search for meaning. Then there is the significant portal two-thirds of the way through December - the ingress of the Sun into Capricorn - which lends a tremendous intensity to the season. Thickening the plot further in recent years is the involvement of the planet Pluto, which has been in Sagittarius between 1994 and 2008.

Transpersonal charge Pluto is a transpersonal planet, with a macrocyclic scope and a hidden karmic agenda. Whatever sign it's in, Pluto's cosmic purpose is to trigger deep changes in society at large, in the course of which it bestirs strong feelings below the threshold of mass consciousness. And when Pluto's long, slow cycle is highlighted by those of the quicker-moving, personal planets - those closer to the Sun - it adds an extra dose of potency to the proceedings.

The personal planets tend to group together in Sagittarius around the holidays; and during the past few years the proximity of Pluto deepened and intensified this search. The need for complete overhaul (Pluto) of the way we seek meaning (Sagittarius) distinctly increased the drama of December's emotional arc. The nature of Plutonian change is such that the imprint of Pluto's impact on the Christmas season will remain even after the transit has moved on.

Transpersonal Lunations The situation is especially evident when we consider the lunar cycle.

Ordinarily, the way astrologers read lunations (New Moons and Full Moons) in an individual's chart is primarily personal: the Sun and the Moon are intimately subjective archetypes that invite us to look at how we feel about ourselves. Every month when the Moon is in Sagittarius, for example, a part of us waxes philosophical: Somewhere in our consciousness, we ask ourselves, "How do I feel about my spiritual life?"1 And when the Sun is there too, every New Moon in Sagittarius, the emphasis is doubled: "How do I see myself - as well as feel about myself - as a spiritual being?"

But the question takes on an exponentially heightened significance because of Pluto's involvement.

The vast collective evolution signified by Pluto's thirteen-year transit through Sagittarius has had to do with the spiritual life of the whole world, which has been undergoing a decay (Pluto) of outworn cultural mores (Sagittarius). We have all felt this decay in the social fabric, and December's lunations ask us to confront it on a more intimate level: "What effect do epochal changes in religion have on my own spiritual life?"

Upset in the temples For many people in the contemporary world, the intellectual credibility of the church died long ago. For many more, its moral credibility started biting the dust with the ingress of Pluto into Sagittarius. The solstice period focuses upon this long-term devolution, and asks each of us to come up with an individual response to it.

The failure of modern theological structures is everywhere in evidence. The young jihadists who burst into global awareness around the millennium, sabotaging with Plutonian extremism the sublime premises of their ancient faith, are only the most obvious example. Also highlighted by the transit was that "old-time-religion" extolled by American fundamentalists - which isn't very old at all when compared to the cosmologies humans have been coming up with since the beginning of time, nor new enough to meet the unprecedented challenges of a world in severe distress. Equally close to home is the pedophilia cover-up scandal that started to rack the Catholic Church as soon as the Pluto transit began, revealing the "infallible" papacy to be quite fallible indeed.

We have lived through an age where ministers were defrocked left and right; the medicine men packed up their shingles and left town. Worldwide, religious institutions fragmented in pre-mortem hysteria - as all organic systems do when in their last throes. Pluto in Sagittarius was trying to teach us that the work of finding meaning in this troubled world is nobody's job but our own.

Against this background, our sense of being poised on a mortal threshold increases as we move into December. It derives not only from the planet Pluto, governor of rebirth, but also from the symbolism of the winter solstice at the deep nadir of the year.

The Wheel Turns The winter solstice is the most inscrutable juncture point of a profound planetary cycle whose ancient meaning permeates the world psyche, even in the most denaturalized and urban of human communities. Whether we are consciously aware of it or not, we are part of an interconnected living system and are absorbed into this immense natural drama.

By mid-December, warmth and heat have been steadily ebbing, animal and plant life have slowed down, retreated underground and gone dormant. Since the beginning of time, the human mind has fashioned legends to try to come to grips with the fear provoked by this all-encompassing decline. Take a moment to consider the implications of this idea. In every age, this time of year has inspired stories of a world-shattering death redeemed by a glorious return to life. Every epoch has solemnized the solstice with its own reverent stories - of kings ritually sacrificed, of old heroes ceding the way for new ones, of miraculous pregnancies heralding a brand new cycle.

The exquisite irony of the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, of course, is that this promised return to glory and radiance is announced by an imperceptible spark in the dark. It is at precisely the year's darkest, deepest point that the magic turnaround occurs. And although those who know the cycle may understand, in theory, that the days will thereafter start to lengthen, it is noteworthy that the switchover from decreasing to increasing light is impossible to see. The solstice moment is heralded by no dramatic contrast, no obvious signal. All is coldness and darkness, just like the night before.

When the cycle is seen as an integral whole, this timing is revealed to be systemically perfect; but the fact that it is also utterly counter-intuitive has a meaning too. Nature could conceivably have come up with a boldly reassuring sign that the Sun was starting its critical return, but She did not. This makes one wonder whether the winter solstice was meant to involve a massive leap of faith.

Crisis of Faith As this last month of the Gregorian calendar year begins, the sacred king of collective myth has left us cold and bereft after his sacrifice. But every tribe has had its elders, astronomers and story-tellers to convey the news that the Sun figure would return: myths that served to instill in the populace the trust required to get through the hard months still ahead. And it may be that that trust is the key to the solstice's esoteric meaning. Applying this idea to the contemporary psyche might help explain the crisis of faith many of us go through at this time of year.

Researchers who study the emotional vicissitudes of the annual cycle (e.g. the effects of light deprivation, cold temperatures and lack of outdoor activity) have tried to help modern thinkers make sense of the Christmas blues. Take this thinking a step further and we have the astrological view: that there is something symbolically appropriate about the sense of doom many people feel around this holiday. The year is indeed dying, and on a soul level there is a need to acknowledge it. Our rational minds know, of course, that the Sun will come back; and that in three month's time there will be budding trees and baby birds. But our rational minds aren't the only parts of our beings in play. The archaic layer of our psyche is left uncajoled by scientific knowledge and its guarantees. On a cellular level we are aware that a mortal drama is taking place.

And what is the point of this mortal drama? That this phase of the cycle might have a function, a psycho-spiritual raison-d'être, is hard for non-holistic thinkers to grasp. How is human consciousness served by mass existential doubt? Only when we see Time as an ever-turning wheel can we make sense of it. Just under the surface of the holiday gaiety - rendering it a tad hysterical, in fact - is an all-encompassing awareness not only of our own personal mortality, but of the world's mortality. And mixed in with this sobering awareness is a sense of poignant hope and faith, unique to this time of year, and the aspect of it that is rightly glorified, even in mass-produced greeting cards.

At the winter solstice all of humanity's energies are funneled into this primal drama of the Sun/Son's rebirth. The human race holds its collective breath, counting the days until the forces of life once again begin their ascent. The great wheel is poised at its bottommost turning point, ready to slowly wend its way back up towards the top. It is easy to see why this annual crossroads filled ancient peoples with such awe, and infuses Christians, to this day, with such fervor. It is the universal story of Darkness turning into Light.

What is remarkable is that this tale has remained intact, with varying degrees of literalization, despite the wholesale disconnection of the modern world from natural cycles. This seems to prove as much as anything could that there are certain inborn stories deeply embedded in the human psyche; and that though astronomical events reflect these stories, they can hardly be said to cause them.

Taking back the holidays The role of Pluto in Sagittarius in this scenario has been to expose the emptiness of many conventional attitudes about the holidays, in order to drive us deeper into the mystery of the solstice. Many of us have come to feel that our rituals have had the numinous leached out of them by the marketplace, which has rendered them mundane and maudlin. We may have come to the dispiriting realization that the only thing connecting us to this sacred time is the calendar on the wall, or the bank being closed, or the commercials for holiday specials that start to appear on TV.

December's transits in the sign of ritual constitute an invitation to reconnect with the aboriginal auspices of the universal holidays, and make them our own again. Pluto in Sagittarius has shown us that we must resacralize those rituals that have grown stale - jettisoning some altogether, inventing new ones from scratch. For some this may mean celebrating the divine without the involvement of a priest or a rabbi or an imam or a retail outlet. For others it may mean a new attentiveness to the patterns in the sky that map out these sacred juncture points over the course of the year.

A Hunger for the Sacred Among those of us left cold by the bleached-out spectacles that pop culture sells us in the name of the changing seasons, a movement was bound to arise. The sign Sagittarius is a testament to the fact that human beings have always had and will always have a hunger for ritual, even in a disensouled world. To fully channel Sagittarius energy is to regain control of these once-holy days so that they will be able to do what they were designed to do: serve as markers of numinous turning-points.

And there is plenty of imagery to choose from in rewriting the sacred scripts. As descendants of the Judeo/Christian/Islamic tradition - not to mention the myriad animistic systems which pre-dated these three - we have inherited a symbolic vocabulary rich in classic rituals.

Rewriting the Rituals Ancient solstice lore is creeping back into the public's consciousness, inspiring curiosity about the sacred origins of such secularized clich?s as the yule log and the mistletoe. Novelists and filmmakers are de-sentimentalizing the holidays of their youth, unearthing what was real about these ceremonies and daring to question the rest. Madonna has discovered the Kabbalah. Satirist Bill Talen is spreading the gospel with his Church of Stop Shopping. Increasing numbers of meaning-seekers, in high-and low-profile ways, are re-consecrating the sacred portals. The culture wars are raging, which leaves a lot of room for unique expression.

The goal spelled out in the etymology of the word religion is that of re-linking us to the universe. From the whimsical to the profoundly solemn, new rites are being created, and ancient ones are being resurrected. On the New Moon in December, try writing yourself a new tradition. On the sacred solstice, celebrate it.

Now it's real. And now it's yours.