Winter Solstice - by John Copeland

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Winter Solstice – by John Copeland

It’s the third week of December and Christmas is right around the corner.  You can just about count the days left in 2013 on your fingers, you can if you use your toes. For us in the Northern Hemisphere, the hours of daylight are diminishing too, just at a time when many of us could use a few more hours of daylight to tackle all the things we seem to have on our to do lists this time of year.  The nights are feeling pretty long right now, and I can feel the chill of winter in the air every afternoon as the shadows lengthen and the sun lowers into the west.
Winter begins on the Solstice, Saturday, December 21st, at 12:11 pm (EST) for folks living east of the Mississippi River, 10:11 am (CST) for the center of the country and 9:11 am (PST) in the far west.  Here in Santa Ynez, California, at 34.6º North latitude, there will be a little over 9 and a half hours of daylight.  And further north, say above the arctic circle, there will be no sunlight at all.
I know, it’s a little odd that the change of seasons occurs right at 12:11 pm (EST), Saturday afternoon.  Our seasons are driven by the clockwork of Earth’s orbit around the sun.  As Earth travels around the sun, it wobbles on its axis tilting toward the sun for part of the year and then tilting away from the sun, driving the cycle of the seasons by altering the intensity and duration of sunlight falling on the Northern and Southern Hemispheres.  One of the direct ways we can observe this is in the changes of the sun’s height above the horizon during the course of the year.
From the Summer Solstice, June 20th, to the Winter Solstice, the points on the horizon the Sun rises and sets move southward each day; the high point in the Sun’s daily path across the sky, at noon, also moves southward each day.  On Saturday, the Sun’s path will reaches its southernmost position and begins is long journey north again.  For us in Northern Hemisphere, it is the first day of winter and the shortest day of the year, but in the Southern Hemisphere, it is midsummer and the longest day of the year.  However, for a few days both before and after the Winter Solstice, the change in the Sun’s position is so slight that appears to be standing still, which is what the word Solstice means.  The word is derived from the Latin words sol (sun) and sistere (to stand still).
No one’s really sure how long ago humans recognized the Winter Solstice and began heralding it as a turning point of the year.  Nearly every culture the world over performed solstice ceremonies.  At their root: an ancient fear that the diminishing sunlight would never return unless humans intervened with anxious vigil and celebration.
Five thousand years of human history–maybe more–have given this season many layers of celebration, folklore and tradition.   Across time, people, not that different than us, have marked this change of seasons with festivals of light and ceremonies of renewal.  After the longest night of the year the sun is seen as growing stronger and the concept of rebirth became strongly associated with the Winter Solstice.
Many years ago, I stood in one of the upper plazas of Inca city of Machu Picchu, in Peru, where on the Winter Solstice, the Inca priests conducted an elaborate ceremony to tether the sun to a stone, ensuring that it would return and not abandon the world to darkness.  In those majestic surroundings you could still feel their passion for the sun.  And unlike other holy days, the Winter Solstice became a cause for great celebration and joy, a party held in the face of earth’s darkest hour.  The celebrations in fact, usually lasted for more than a week.
The Yule log, evergreens, colored glass ornaments, lights on our houses and Christmas trees — all of these traditions come down to us from our collective human past.  Today, just as in older times, each is designed to make the season bright.
Romans welcomed winter with the festival of Saturnalia, honoring Saturn, the god of agriculture. People decorated their houses with evergreen branches and lit lamps all night to ward off the darkness.
Across time, people have marked the change of seasons. The ancient Celts hung golden apples and lit candles on oak trees to celebrate the winter solstice.Around 3200 B.C.E., ancient people in Ireland build a huge knoll called Newgrange. For 5 days over the winter solstice period, a beam of sunlight illuminates a small room inside the knoll for 17 minutes at dawn. 
Hanukkah is the Jewish Festival of Lights celebrated in countries all over the world. The date shifts every year because of the Jewish Lunar calendar.  But it is still, in reality, a mid-winter festival.  In 165 B.C. there was a great battle between the Maccabees and the Syrians. The Jews won the battle and when they went to their temple, they found that the Syrians had allowed their sacred light to go out. They only had oil for one day. The miracle of Hanukkah is that the oil lasted 8 days until a messenger could return with more. There are nine candles in the menorah. One of the is used to light the other candles and the other eight stand for the eight days that the oil kept burning
In today’s Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, Anasazi Indians, who were expert sky watchers, carved spiral designs into rock to track the seasons and record the passage of time.
In this canyon is a petroglyph called the Sun Dagger because of the way the Sun’s wedge-shape beams strike it in midday during the winter solstice.
However, for nearly all of us, Christmas has appropriated nearly all of the ancient practices and customs.  I have always been curious about many of the things we do at Christmas time.  In fact, this was how my interest in what lies behind our holiday celebrations through out the year.  Almost every tradition we observe during the Christmas season has its roots in long-ago times, a fact we’re comfortably though vaguely aware of.  Many of us put up a Christmas tree, but we don’t know why we’re supposed to, other than it looks good in our living room and gives us a place to put presents. We know we’re supposed to kiss under mistletoe, but we don’t know why, and we harbor a vague sense of wanting to give something to carolers who come to our door, but offhand can’t think of any reason to other than ordinary hospitality.
In long-ago times when winter snows and cold cloaked the earth, people would gather together around their fire hearths. Though summer, spring, and fall spread out the community, winter brought it back together. The dark months were cold and inhospitable, best shared in the company of others within a circle of both physical and societal warmth.
By the high Middle Ages, Christmas had become an relief of winter’s gray days; a festival of light, warmth, spirit and food, celebrated by noble and peasant alike. It combined the pagan traditions of the common people and the glories of the Christian faith.  For medieval people, commoner and royal alike, the season offered a vision of a world made one, where all would sit at a common table, in the blazing light and never know the cold again.
December has long since lost its original meaning of “ten” – Decem, for the old Roman calendar’s tenth month and for those of you still current with your Latin.  December is more synonymous today with “decorate.”  I know I’ve been decking the boughs of the trees around our house with lights.  And “decorate” still resonates with the spirit that our distant ancestors held for this month.
Decorated trees were used in winter celebrations long before the advent of Christianity. Plants and trees that remained green all year had a special significance for people who lived in cold-winter climes.  The Yule trees of these ancient Northern Europeans were decorated with natural ornaments such as berries, rosebuds, and cinnamon sticks.  Candles or lamps adorned the tree, representing the light of the sun, soon to be reborn.  In many traditions, a Yule log is burned throughout the solstice night to provide a light in the darkest night, symbolizing hope and a belief that the sun will return.
The return of the light is the most prominent feature of most midwinter festivals.  Yule was celebrated with bonfires to stimulate the ascent of the sun, and lamps illuminated houses decorated with evergreens to simulate summer.  Ancient Romans decorated their houses with evergreen branches and lit lamps all night to ward off the darkness.
The ancient Celts hung golden apples and lit candles on oak trees to celebrate the winter solstice.
Most historians agree that the use of the evergreen tree as part of Christian Christmas celebrations started a little over 400 years ago in Germany.  However, back then is was the custom hang the tree upside down from a roof beam.  It triangular shape was a Christian symbol of the trinity.  Protestant Reformer, Martin Luther is said to have decorated a small Christmas Tree with candles.  Walking home one night Luther was awed by the brilliance of stars twinkling through the evergreens he passed.
He wanted to share his experience with his family he took the tree down and set up right side up in his home and wired the branches with lit candles, to show his children how the stars twinkled through the dark night.  However, it took two centuries for the tradition to become widely established.  It caught on very early on the continent.  However, the English never adopted the custom until the marriage of young Queen Victoria and the German prince Albert.  During their first Christmas together, Albert set up a Christmas tree bedecked with flaming candles and hung with sparkling baubles in a salon of the palace.  It’s beauty captured the imagination of the public, and it became the fashion during Victoria’s long reign to set up a tree of one’s own.  The Victorian Era was the prelude to the modern Christmas as we know it now.


A Christmas tree lighted with candles was enchanting, even though that meant having a bucket of water or sand nearby in case of fire. And there were lots of fires.  Insurance companies even stopped paying for fires caused by Christmas trees.
In 1880 Thomas Edison was the first to connect lights with wire but was not the first to wrap them on a Christmas tree. He strung them around his laboratory as an advertisement in an effort to gain a contract to provide electricity to Manhattan. But his partner Edward Johnson was the first to decorate his Christmas tree with electric lights in 1882. He is the “Father of the Electric Christmas Tree.”
The practice didn’t catch on quickly though; it was expensive and Americans were still wary of electricity.  That changed in 1895 when President Grover Cleveland featured the first White House Christmas tree lighted by current. Illuminated by more than 100 multi-colored bulbs the president’s tree started a craze across the nation.
Unfortunately they having lights on your Christmas tree required the rental of a generator and hiring a “wireman” to operate them. The cost at the time was $300, which is about $2000 today. Because of this lighted Christmas trees were most often seen in town squares and community functions or homes of the wealthy.
The person responsible for popularizing Christmas tree lighting is Albert Sadacca. A tragic fire in New York City in 1917, caused by candles on a Christmas tree, gave 15-year-old Albert Sadacca an idea. Now it just so happened that Albert’s family, who had come from Spain, had a novelty business selling wicker cages with imitation birds in them that lit up.
Albert suggested to his parents that they begin making electric lights for Christmas trees. They had lots of bulbs on hand, and it would be much safer than using candles. The Sadacca’s thought Albert had a good idea, but only one hundred strings of electric Christmas tree lights sold in the first year. After Albert thought of painting the bulbs red, green, and other colors instead of using plain glass, business picked up sharply. Albert and his two brothers, Henri and Leon became the head of the largest Christmas lighting company in the world for all of the years of its operation up to 1965.
Today we expect to see the holiday season become aglow with electric strands of light. Think of the variety and range of Christmas lights available in today’s market. We can be grateful to Thomas Edison, Edward H. Johnson and Albert Sadacca for illuminating our holiday season and helping hold back the darkness.
Christmas has a magic that is difficult to grasp and even more difficult to explain. It brings together traditions, ideas, and customs from all over the world and from all times.
If our entire human civilization could write its own memoirs and tell the complete story of Christmas past, surprisingly, the tale would not begin in Bethlehem, but two thousand years earlier in the cradle of civilization.
It would be a story involving Christians and non-Christians alike.  Babylonians, Greeks and Romans – whose ancient customs became part of the Christmas.  The tale would tell of early Europeans hanging fir sprigs and winter greenery to renew life and protect against the cold blasts of Arctic wind.  People who had not yet heard of the Christ child would be burning Yule logs.  And the tale would continue for another two thousand years after Wise men gathered beside a manger in the a stable, with each generation adding to the customs of Christmas.  And in the end, it would be the story of each of us, the story of everyone who has ever hung an ornament on a tree or presented a gift to someone special.
Each of us has our favorite Christmas memories.  Images of evergreen trees, colorfully wrapped presents and loved ones arriving home at last for the holidays.  We hold in our hearts the stories of a lifetime of Christmases.
I remember my Grandmother, with her arthritic hands, playing Christmas Carols on the piano.  I’m four or five and in the midst of singing, with my family, like millions of people before me, I absorbed the joy and solemnity of Yuletide.  Life without Christmas would have been absolutely unthinkable to me.
What is so wonderful about the Winter Solstice, is that once we are past that moment of time we can look forward to brighter skies. Slowly at first, then more rapidly as we go into January and February, days get longer and everything around helps us celebrate the increase of light. It speaks well for the human spirit that our greatest religious celebrations take place at Winter Solstice time, as people radiate warmth of fellowship and love on these dimmer days.
May your celebrations of this season of holidays draw deep from the abundant joy, fierce hopes and enduring traditions of all our ancient ancestors.

John Copeland
Rancho Olivos
2390 N. Refugio Rd.
Santa Ynez, CA 93460


Dr. Eric P. Dahlstrom, D.C., L.Ac.
Santa Monica Healing Arts
Providing Chiropractic Care and Acupuncture in Santa Monica since 1999 ( Check out our 5-star Review on Yelp ( or find us on facebook (
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Samhain/Halloween – by John Copeland

Well, here we are, well into the last quarter of the year and the end of October.  This week, in the Santa Ynez Valley, we’ve had ample notice that the seasons are changing, the hours of daylight are diminishing and the hours of darkness are increasing. This weekend we say goodbye to Daylight Savings when we turn our clocks back (the 1st weekend of November) and it’ll be even more apparent – the darkness, that is.
But before we “fall back,” on Thursday, we celebrate Halloween with its witches, ghost, goblins and things that go bump in the night.  On Halloween, we also cross into what our ancient ancestors considered the dark half of the year.  It’s all part of why I love October.
Outside of New Years, Halloween, is the one of the oldest holidays still celebrated today.  A day, or if you prefer, a night full of magic and mystery, that originally celebrated the inextricable link between the cycles of the seasons and life. Halloween has not only survived, it is one holiday that has continued to thrive throughout its long history.  Here  in the United States, Halloween’s popularity is second to Christmas.
Halloween, just like many of our other holidays has been reshaped over the centuries, the ancient beliefs and customs have been altered and new traditions added over time.  These changes happened so gradually and span so many years, that it is often a challenge to unravel all the alterations.  But it you’re like me, knowing a little bit about the rich history surrounding Halloween makes it all that more fascinating a holiday.  Particularly, when you realize how old some of our traditions actually are.
Beyond costume parties and trick-or-treating, the origins of Halloween can be traced directly to the ancient Celtic festival Samhain (sow-in, pronounced like cow). The Romans, the Christian Church and ultimately, modern society have all had a hand in altering this holiday, but even our most contemporary traditions persevere elements of Halloween’s ancient past.
The Celtic peoples, were early domesticators of the horse and in the distant past they spread out from the steppes and across much of Europe.  They lived in what is now eastern Europe, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, France, Belgium, northern Spain, England, parts of Scotland and Ireland.
 The Celts divided their year into eight major holidays and two seasons of light and dark. The season of light began at Beltane on May 1st and the season of darkness began with Samhain on November 1st.  The word Samhain literally translates, from ancient Gaelic as “summers end” and in contemporary Irish Samhain is the name for the month of November.
According to their calendar, their year began on the day corresponding to November 1st on our present calendar. Since they were a pastoral people, it was the time when cattle and sheep had to be moved to closer pastures and crops were harvested and stored. It marked the end of summer and the harvest and the beginning of the dark, cold winter, a time of year that was often associated with human death.
Now, the Celts are believed to have measured time by nights rather than by days, as we do today.  Traditionally the festival of Samhain began at sundown. The Celts believed that on the night before their new year, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred.  More so than any other time of the year, the ghosts of the dead were able to mingle with the living, because at Samhain the souls of those who had died during the year traveled into the otherworld. People gathered to sacrifice animals, fruits, and vegetables. They also lit bonfires in honor of the dead, to aid them on their journey, and to keep them away from the living. On that day all manner of beings were abroad: ghosts, fairies, and demons–all part of the dark and dread.
Samhain was a time that a family’s ancestors were honored and invited home whilst harmful spirits were warded off.  It is believed that the need to ward off harmful spirits led to the wearing of costumes and masks to protect one from being recognized by unfriendly spirits.  And, since malevolent spirits roamed abroad on Samhain night, gifts and treats were left out to pacify them and ensure next years crops would be plentiful. These are customs that are the foundation of

today’s costume parties and what evolved into today’s trick-or-treating.
Hill top bonfires also played a large part in Celtic festivities. On Samhain, all household fires were extinguished and at the end of the ceremonies, brands were lit from the great bonfires of to re-kindle all the home fires of the tribe. As they received the flame that marked this time of beginnings, the ancient Celts surely had a sense of they were kindling new dreams, projects and hopes for the year to come.
By 43 BCE, the Romans had conquered nearly all of the Celtic lands. The Romans, although conquerors, were surprisingly accepting of the beliefs of other cultures.  In the course of the four hundred years that they ruled, two Roman festivals became combined with the traditional Celtic celebration of Samhain.
The first was Feralia, also celebrated in late October, when the Romans traditionally commemorated the passing of the dead. The second was a day to honor Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. The symbol of Pomona is the apple.  Apples were also a special fruit to the Celts.  At the heart of the Celtic Otherworld grew an apple tree whose fruit had magical properties. These festivals were blended with Samhain and the apple became part of the “Halloween” celebration that would become Halloween in the form of “bobbing” for apples.
Samhain began evolving into the Halloween we are familiar with when Christian missionaries attempted to change the religious practices of the Celtic people. As a result of their efforts to wipe out “pagan” holidays, such as Samhain, the Christians succeeded in effecting major transformations in it. In 601 A.D. Pope Gregory the First issued a now famous edict to his missionaries concerning the native beliefs and customs of the peoples he hoped to convert. Rather than try to obliterate native peoples’ customs and beliefs, the pope instructed his missionaries to use them: if a group of people worshipped a tree, rather than cut it down, he advised them to consecrate it to Christ and allow its continued worship.
In terms of spreading Christianity, this was a brilliant concept and it became a basic approach used in Catholic missionary work. Church holy days were purposely set to coincide with native holy days. Christmas, for instance, was assigned the arbitrary date of December 25th because it corresponded with the mid-winter celebration of many peoples. Likewise, St. John’s Day was set on the summer solstice. While missionaries identified their holy days with those observed by the Celts, they branded the earlier religion’s supernatural deities as evil, and associated them with the devil. The Celtic underworld inevitably became identified with the Christian Hell.
The old beliefs associated with Samhain never died out entirely. All Saints Day, otherwise known as All Hallows (hallowed means sanctified or holy), continued the ancient Celtic traditions. The powerful symbolism of the traveling dead was too strong, and perhaps too basic to the human psyche, to be satisfied with the abstract Catholic feast honoring saints. People continued to celebrate All Hallows Eve as a time of the wandering dead, but the supernatural beings were now thought to be evil. The folk continued to propitiate those spirits (and their masked impersonators) by setting out gifts of food and drink. Subsequently, All Hallows Eve became Hallow Evening, which became Hallowe’en–an ancient Celtic, pre-Christian New Year’s Day in contemporary dress. The practice of retaining traditional customs while attempting to redefine them had a sustaining effect: the traditional beliefs and customs lived on, in new guises.
However, it was in Colonial America that these old historical traditions merged and a distinctly American version of Halloween emerged. Colonial Halloween festivities featured the telling of ghost stories and mischief-making of all kinds. By the early 19th century, annual autumn festivities were common, but Halloween wasn’t celebrated everywhere in the country.
In the second half of the 19th century, America was flooded with new immigrants, millions of Irish fleeing Ireland’s potato famine.  These irish helped to popularize the celebration of Halloween nationally. Today, children and many adults dress up in various different costumes, some inspired by the latest films, characters from fantasy stories, and other areas of popular culture. The whole notion of trick-or-treat came from Ireland.

The custom of going door-to-door threatening to play pranks if treats are not received came from Ireland of the 18th and 19th centuries when the children of tenant farmers would go to the Lords or Landlords manor demanding treats or they would play pranks.  The children would carry with them jack-o’lanterns which were made by hollowing out a turnip or sugar beet and carving bits out to represent facial features and would then be lit from a candle placed in the inside. The idea behind this may have been to frighten off any supernatural forces that might be about on this night.

The carving of pumpkins is associated with Halloween in North America where pumpkins are both readily available and much larger- making them easier to carve than turnips. Using pumpkins is an American contribution to celebrating Halloween.
By the turn of the century, Halloween parties for both children and adults became the most common way to celebrate the day. Parties focused on games, foods of the season, and festive costumes.
In the 1920s and 1930s, Halloween had become a secular, but community-centered holiday, with parades and town-wide parties as the featured entertainment. Between 1920 and 1950, the centuries-old practice of trick-or-treating was revived. Trick-or-treating was a relatively inexpensive way for an entire community to share the Halloween celebration. In theory, families could also prevent tricks being played on them by providing the neighborhood children with small treats. A new American tradition was born, and it has continued to grow. Today, Americans spend an estimated $7 billion annually on Halloween, making it the country’s second largest commercial holiday.
But, Halloween is no stranger to controversy even in the twenty-first century, it has always been targeted by those who wish to control it, from the early Catholic church to the various political and religious groups of today. Yet, Halloween has managed to achieve national status without the holiday status of the July 4th or Christmas, because it’s a celebration of the potential of what humans want to be and, if only for one night, what they would not otherwise be.
Halloween endures because it allows its participants to both embrace and defuse their fears. From the ancient Celts who looked to the spirits that wandered Samhain night for insight to the future to the little vampires and fairies trick-or-treating at your door, Halloween’s adaptability is the reason it remains—after nearly 2000 years—the most bewitching night of the year.
Of course, whether we’re trick or treating, bobbing for apples, or dressing in costumes, each one of these Halloween traditions relies on the good will of the very same “spirits” whose presence the early Celts felt so keenly. Ours is not such a different holiday after all!

Dahlstrom Day of the Dead

Dahlstrom Day of the Dead

From ghoulies and ghosties
And long-leggedy beasties
And things that go bump in the night,
Good Lord, deliver us!
~Scottish Saying
Have a Happy Halloween.
John Copeland
Rancho Olivos
2390 N. Refugio Rd.
Santa Ynez, CA 93460


Dr. Eric P. Dahlstrom, D.C., L.Ac.
Santa Monica Healing Arts
Providing Chiropractic Care and Acupuncture in Santa Monica since 1999 ( Check out our 5-star Review on Yelp ( or find us on facebook (
~follow us on
twitter: @SMHealingArts
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