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Winter solstice: The cold-weather celebration is hot again

December 21, 2011 | 12:55 pm

Winter Solstice at StonehengeWinter solstice is a busy time of year for a Wiccan priestess -- especially now, when solstice traditions (observed even in ancient times) are hot once more.

"People are celebrating the solstice more than ever in recent memory," said Selena Fox, who isn't just any Wiccan priestess. She's a psychotherapist and the founder of Wisconsin's Circle Sanctuary, a nonprofit Wiccan church and, according to its website, a 200-acre nature preserve.

A solstice occurs twice a year, when the sun's position in the sky, as viewed from Earth, reaches its farthest points north and south from the celestial equator. The winter solstice marks the shortest day of the year; the summer solstice marks the longest.  [Updated 2:26 p.m. Dec. 21:  The solstice takes place this year Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. Pacific Standard Time.]

PHOTOS: Winter solstice

Solstice is "widely celebrated today by Wiccans, druids, heathens and other pagans; by indigenous peoples practicing traditional ways in Africa, Asia, Polynesia, Australia, Europe and the Americas; by environmentalists and astronomers; by secular humanists and Freethinkers; by eco-Christians and those of other religions and philosophies," Fox told The Times in an interview Wednesday.

Fox speaks frequently on solstice traditions and practices of "nature religion" (to use an umbrella term). She said that "people are celebrating the solstice from more of a science-based worldview.  Nature centers are having solstice celebrations ... and some Christian churches are keeping the solstice."

Humankind has been "observing solstices for thousands of years," Fox said, but the celestial events have become even more of the moment. Why? Because this is an "age of climate change and a need to have sustainability on the planet," she said, so it makes sense that a holiday that has "connecting with the cycles of nature" at its core would become popular.

Plus, she said, it "makes sense to have a celebration that's time-tested."

And when it comes to winter solstice celebrations, we're talking old. "Even thousands of years ago," Fox said, "there was an awareness among humans about the rhythms of nature and the cyclic nature of these rhythms to the point that these amazing sites were constructed."

Such sites include Stonehenge in Britain, as well as Newgrange in Ireland. It is believed that primary axes of Stonehenge are aligned on sight lines pointing to the winter solstice sunset. For Newgrange, it's sunrise.

In the U.S., Fox points to Cahokia, near St. Louis, and its Woodhenge. Large oval-shaped pits at the 1,000-year-old site seem to be arranged in arcs of circles. According to the Cahokia website, posts set in the pits are believed to have lined up with the rising sun at certain times of the year. 

One topic on which Fox has become well-versed is how many holiday traditions have their roots in solstice customs -- "wreaths on doors, greens in household and public buildings, the exchange of gifts, the burning of the yule log, singing of songs, feasting and partying.

"So what you actually have ... is some old customs, across cultures, across time, connected with this 'holidays' celebration."

Fox, who said her personal holiday celebration will include the Scottish tradition of Hogmannay, sees the solstice's relevance stretching from thousand-year-old customs to the Web. She's been busy doing podcasts lately.

The solstice is not only about "keeping alive a very old practice for humans," she said, it's also "very much in the here and now."

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-- Amy Hubbard+

Photo: Druids gather at Stonehenge in December 2010 to celebrate the sunrise closest to the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. Credit: Matt Cardy / Getty Images

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