Marking the Shortest Day of the Year

Winter Solstice Tree of Light (courtesy of

This post is a reprint of “The Shortest Day” by Patrick Swanson (Artistic Director, Revels, Inc.). It was published on December 21, 2011 in the Revels Winter Newsletter.
December 4, 2017

In our own time the Winter Solstice is indissolubly linked with the festival of Christmas, though it was not always so. The myths of the festival are so deeply embedded within us that we no longer ask why we bring an evergreen into the house or decorate with candles or hang mistletoe. We take these things for granted as we plunge into the hectic preparations for Christmas and the New Year. Overall there is a heightened sense of something significant happening at a fixed point on the calendar. For some it is Christmas night, for others it is watching the ball drop in Times Square. The commercial frenzy of gift buying is fueled by references to holly and stars and carols and the streets are illuminated by strings of twinkling lights. Sometimes the blurring of images can distort the meaning of the event that is being celebrated.

Underneath it all the unifying event is the arrival of the shortest day of the year. Perhaps in response to some primal human anxiety our common ancestors marked out the shortest day as the turning point in the year’s cycle of warmth and plenty and cold and scarcity. Over history major feasts and celebrations have accumulated around this time, sacred and secular – Yule, Christmas, Saturnalia, Midwinter – over the years amassing volumes of literature, custom, ritual, music and dance. It is from this great bounty of compressed emotion and meaning that we find the core material for our shows. The Christmas Revels format includes sacred and secular traditions from a wide collection of cultures and presents them in the context of celebration of the shortest day of the year. One of Susan Cooper’s lines in a Revels mummers’ play presents the great mystery of life and death very simply. When the call goes out for a doctor to bring the dead hero back to life, a boy answers,

 There is no doctor can bring this man to life,
His dying was a mystery and did not come from strife.
So, let the blessed mistletoe about him,
and about him,
and about him go,
And bring him back among us – so.

May you have a very merry Christmas and a happy Solstice and “Great joy to the new!”

See the 2019 Christmas Revels: “Celestial Fools”

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