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Mongol Meanderings

Winter Solstice


Winter Solstice Traditions
(And history of the Christmas Tree)

Article by me (Leon)
Originally Written December 17, 2011
For the UB Post
Updated December 21, 2013

Okay, now it’s cold!  About a month ago, almost to the day, I went off about how warm October was compared to last year.  Right after I wrote that article, almost the very next day, the temperature dropped.  The second half of November was very cold.  December is even colder.  Last Friday, I actually had to buy a thicker jacket and put on my camel wool socks that I had bought previously but never wore.  I didn’t want to spend the money, but I was freezing!  Also, I had to buy some new, thicker gloves for my son, as his fingers were freezing.  He had had gloves with individual fingers.  So, instead, I bought him the kind of gloves with all the fingers joined in one pocket (except the thumb, of course).

Also, it seems darker this year.  I mean the sun seems a bit lower in the sky and it’s darker until much later in the morning.  As we approach the winter solstice (өвлийн туйл) on December 22 (Thursday), [It can be on December 21st or December 22nd] my mind has been turning to winter solstice traditions around the world.  Solstice is a compound word from Latin meaning “Sun stands still.”  Starting on December 22, and lasting three days, the sun literally stands still from our perspective.  Then, it starts to rise higher in the sky, as if it had been born again, on December 25.  Prior to researching for this article, I had done research into this matter, but I hadn’t come across Mongolian winter solstice traditions.  I knew that there had to be some, as nearly every culture does.  So, I did some MORE research and this is what I found:  

Assembling the ger (Mongolian yurt)

The Mongolian Winter Solstice (The Christmas Tree Came From Mongolia!)

According to an article by Jade Wah’oo Grigori, entitled:  “A Time of the Shaman’s Gift Bringing;” the traditional Mongolian winter solstice is a very, very, meaningful and important time for all Mongolians who still follow the old ways. [Honestly, there aren't many who still follow the old ways.  Most are in Buryatia.]

Now, when I use the word “Mongolian” I shall be referring to all the Mongol tribes collectively, including the Khalkhs and Buryats, and whichever others there are out there.  According to Ms Grigori, the Mongolian village shaman was and still is very central and important to the winter solstice ritual.  Villagers gather at the shaman’s ger, a circular tent or yurt.  There is a central pole which represents the ‘mother tree’, “ej mod.”  It is called other things too, like the “Tree of Life” and the “Pole of Ascension.”  There are 81 ribs, representing the 9-times-9 pillars which hold the heavens apart from the earth.  The ‘mother tree’ points to the North Star, figuratively of course.  So, at the top of the ‘Tree of Life’ sits the ‘Star’.  (Where have I seen that before?)  While each human’s spirit has a home on a different star, the North Star is special.  It is metaphorically called the “Heart of the eagle” or the “Compassionate heart of purification”.  

[Parenthetically, I know that TODAY, in Mongolia, the gers are built with TWO poles (as pictured above); however, I have been inside a Shaman's ger in Ulaanbaatar, and it had one single pole.  Unfortunately there were signs all over the place saying that photography was forbidden inside the Shaman's ger.  So, I have no photographic proof.  You'll just have to take my word for it.]  Now, back to my article...

The villagers gather in the shaman’s tent, having brought gifts of local wares and placing them under the “tree”.  In return for the gifts, the shaman undertakes a spiritual journey to the North Star with the help of some mushrooms on behalf of his benefactors-become-beneficiaries.  The villagers are laden with spiritual burdens, which span the gamut from grudges to guilt.  They want their “sins” to be cleansed from their souls.  The shaman acts as an intermediary between them and the Great Spirit of the steadfast, unmoving, unchanging, eternal North Star.  He takes the spirits of the unclean to the Heart of Purification where they are cleansed of all unrighteousness, then returned to Earth.  Then, the Tree of Life, or Mother Tree, shimmers with the light of each purified soul, reawakened to or renewed by the light of the North Star.

Holy Mongolia!  I did not know that.  I’ll bet most modern Mongolians don’t know that either.  Truly fascinating stuff; is it not?

As aforementioned, before doing the research for this article, I had done some research into winter solstice traditions around the world.  Let us compare/contrast.

Germanic/Scandinavian Winter Solstice

Let’s start with my personal favourite, the Yuletide, of the Germanic/Scandinavian Tribes.  “Yule” seems to mean feasting, while “tide” means season.  The feasting began on the day of the death of the sun, December 22, accompanied by special prayers and rituals to “bring the sun back to life”.  On December 24, the eve of the rebirth of the sun, a “Yule log” is put on the fire is and supposed to be kept burning all night long, to ensure that the sun is re-lit and thus, reborn.

Greco-Roman Winter Solstice

According to Robert Maza, the Romans had Brumalia, a winter solstice festival, from which we have acquired some of our Western traditions for Christmas.  It was celebrated during the whole month of Dionysus (Greek Name), or Bacchus (Roman name), which lasted from November 24 or 25 to December 24 or 25.  Interestingly, this is the same time period that we currently celebrate the Christmas season.  According to Wikipedia’s article on Dionysus/Bacchus, Bacchus was the god of communion between the living and the dead.  He was also the great Liberator from life’s burdens through imbibing wine and making merry.  However, Brumalia was not for worshipping Bacchus, but rather to worship the sol invictus, or invincible sun.  On December 25, the sun was to show its invincibility by starting to “rise again” in the sky, basically to demonstrate its power over death.  The eve of December 24 was particularly festive.  Because of the same timing as that of Christmas, it is thought that the emperor Constantine changed the name of the festival from Brumalia to Christmas (as he was a Christian) and changed the meaning from sol invictus to Christ’s birth and ultimate triumph over sin and death.  Christ also brought a message of purification through repentance and baptism, which I find to be an interesting correlation with the Mongolian winter solstice rituals.  

Pakistani Winter Solstice

There is a book by Patricia Montley entitled, “In Nature’s Honor: Myths and Rituals Celebrating the Earth”.  In it we learn that the Kalash people of Pakistan had a winter solstice festival called, “Chaomas”.  It was observed by lighting bonfires and conducting purification rituals.  In the same book we learn that the ancient Zoroastrians of modern day Iran celebrated Sabe-Yalda, or the sun’s birthday, by lighting huge bonfires to insure that the sun stay lit.

Chinese, Japanese, Korean Winter Solstices

The Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans all celebrated the winter solstice anciently, but it has been almost completely forgotten by modern day people.  The most interesting of all their traditions was the Japanese tradition of “Yuzuburo,” which involved taking a citron bath accompanied by prayers for spiritual purification, good health, and prosperity.

Egyptian Winter Solstice

In ancient Egypt, there was the Feast of Aset, celebrated around the winter solstice.  Asar (Osiris) was killed by his jealous brother Set and resurrected by his wife Aset (Isis).  Osiris was the god associated with the sun and Set was associated with darkness.

Scandinavian Myth about Winter Solstice

That reminds me of the Scandinavian myth of Balder and Loki.  Balder was the god of truth and light.  He was associated with the sun.  Loki was the god of mischief.  Balder’s mother had asked all the plants and animals of earth never to harm her son, Balder, but there was one plant that she overlooked; it was mistletoe.  Loki became jealous of Balder’s popularity and he was annoyed by the noise devoted to Balder’s praise.  So, he clandestinely disguised himself as an old hag and visited Balder’s mother.  He found out from her that there was one and only one living thing on Earth that she had not made contract with not to harm her son.  Loki then made an arrow out of mistletoe, which he used to kill Balder.

The gods resurrected Balder, however, and they made mistletoe promise to never harm another living thing.  This is why mistletoe is used as decoration at winter solstice time.

In conclusion, of all the winter solstice traditions that I have researched, the Mongolian one is by far the most fascinating to me.  I am so glad that I have come to Mongolia; because had I not done so, I would not have come across that fascinating winter solstice tradition.  May we all join in the spirit of the Mongolian winter solstice tradition this year by purifying our hearts, by eliminating our grudges, by turning away from our guilt, and by leaving gifts of joy under the mother tree, which is humanity.  This is my wish and challenge to you.  May you have a happy winter solstice and may we leave the darkness behind us as the sun is resurrected once again.


I see the same theme over and over again.  In Greece, we had Dionysus, who was the solar deity that gave his life for the grape vines to grow and produce bountiful harvest of grapes.  Those grapes were said to be filled with the blood of Dionysus.  Hence, wine = blood shed by god.  The wine (blood) was stored and drunk at winter solstice time especially in memory of what Dionysus (the sun) had done for human kind.

In Rome, we had Bacchus.

In Scandinavia, we had Balder.

In Egypt, we had Osiris.

In Judea, we had Jesus.

Happy Winter Solstice, everyone!



Modern Winter Solstice Traditions

Modern winter solstice traditions may include a ski trip to your local mountain or heading to the mall to buy the latest winter jacket or ski clothing. But the tradition of celebrating the winter solstice has much deeper and longer lasting roots than this.

Here are some more winter solstice traditions:



American Aboriginal Winter Solstice Traditions

[Note:  I don't like to call them Indians (as they have nothing to do with India) and I don't like to call them Native Americans (as I am a native American, but my ancestors came from Poland); So, I call them American Aborigines (the original Americans)].

Mowhawk Aborigines

Mohawk religious year begins after the first new moon following the winter solstice and “five nights of sleeping.” A ceremony of song, dance, food and prayer to the Creator is performed for the renewal of “medicine societies.”  


Incan Aborigines

Inti Raymi: Incan Sun Festival” (by Nicholas Gill)

Cusco's largest celebration of the year, held every June 24, re-enacts the ancient Inca ceremony welcoming the winter solstice in Peru.

Inti Raymi is the Festival of the Sun, or Fiesta del Sol that continues an Inca tradition that dates back centuries. The Incas would hold an annual ceremony to celebrate the winter solstice. The name Inti Raymi is Quechua for new sun. In fact the festival is held entirely in Quechua, the language of the Incas, which is still spoken by millions of people throughout the Andes.

Although it is not what you would have found centuries ago here, it is a lively ceremony and you can at the very least get an idea of how things once were with this majestic Andean culture. There is music, drums, speeches, dances, and other rituals that are re-enacted by the ancestors of the Inca.

Held every June 24 amidst the colossal stone fort of Saqsayhuaman perched above the city, the event packs the crowds. Tickets are quite expensive for the better seats, although you can sit on the ground with the locals for near peanuts.


Hopi and Navajo Aborigines

The winter solstice marks a special storytelling time for native American communities. During that special literary season, they say, the sun is in the south corner of time.



Iroquois Aborigines

While Celtic peoples celebrated this special time [winter solstice] with feasts, some Native American tribes saw this unique celestial event in a different light. Among the Iroquois, it was a time of dreaming.

Rather than staying up all night to celebrate the dawn, the People of the Longhouse turned in early, to sleep, to dream.

As Mother Night reigned supreme, in dreaming they walked between the worlds of light and darkness, gathering great meaning from what The Great Mystery illuminated for them.

At first light, the entire tribe would gather and each tribal member -- men, women, to the smallest child -- would stand and relate what visions they saw on this special night.

The dreams would be discussed at length by the entire tribe for each vision's meaning -- for the individual, about the world, for the tribe.