Origins of the winter solstice
The winter solstice, the shortest day and longest night of the year, holds a powerful significance. It has been observed by several cultures throughout history, with references to this important time of year found in early archaeological evidence.
As an example of one of the earliest traditions, in ancient Rome the festival of Saturnalia was a special time of feasting and gift-giving, honoring the god Saturn and the winter solstice. In particular, people of all classes would exchange candles and clay dolls. This is a time where the Romans celebrated the days getting longer after the solstice, by paying homage to Mithra—an ancient Iranian god of the waters and light.
In Indian healing traditions, winter is considered a Vata season in Ayurveda, characterized by dryness and cold. Herbs like Ashwagandha, Shatavari, and Triphala are traditionally used to balance Vata.
Astro-herbalism and the winter solstice
In simple terms, astro-herbalism connects the positions of the planets and celestial bodies with our health, utilizing herbal remedies to match that. This was heavily practiced in Alchemy, a very involved practice designed by ancient Egyptian healers.
As mentioned above, winter is connected with Saturn. And this makes sense: Saturn is the sixth planet from the Sun. It is the furthest planet that still can be seen with our own eyes.
Saturn is associated with darkness, "hard" parts of life and hard parts of the body. For example, it's associated with bones, joints, teeth, and organs like the kidneys and gallbladder. It's also associated with processing minerals in our body.
In a more spiritual sense, Saturn teaches us important lessons through challenges, like discipline and endurance.
In a beautiful article by Anima Mundi, they share that Saturn is:
"the overcoming of these challenges that the lessons of Saturn are learned. Saturn is the trajectory and the achievement over time, the essence of challenge, as well as the treasures of wisdom earned over the hardships. Saturn, considered the lord of time, embodies our karmic inheritance, the lessons and patterning of ancestral heritage, and how we conduct it within our lives."
Herbs and herbal rituals for the winter solstice
This is a beautiful time of year to honor both darkness and light. Here are a few wonderful herbal rituals associated with the winter solstice, incorporating calendula, mugwort, rosemary, and ashwagandha, along with insights from folklore and Ayurveda.
These rituals are deeply personal, and you can customize them based on your preferences and beliefs. Always ensure that any herbs used are safe for consumption or skin contact, and if in doubt, consult with a healthcare professional or herbalist!
Calendula (Calendula officinalis) and the winter solstice*
Herbal Actions: bitter tonic/cholagogue, lymphagogue, astringent, inflammation modulator, antimicrobial, immune tonic, digestive support, skin support
Calendula has a beautiful golden-orange flower that has resin right underneath the flower petals. When I first harvested Calendula, I was at a herb farm in the Scottish Isle of Arran, visiting with the beloved herbalist Keith Robertson - founder of the Scottish School of Herbalism.
I was amazed to feel how sticky this herb is. And that resin is where much of the medicine lives! It is often associated with the sun, indicating it helps the sun shine where the sun don't shine. This gets to our deep psychological states, as well as the areas of digestion and the bowels.
As a digestive bitter and tonic, Calendula has a powerful affinity for the digestive system. It can help tighten and tone boggy gut issues such as leaky gut, SIBO, chronic diarrhea and bloating.
Calendula is also very beneficial for the skin. It can help heal wounds and may be indicated with inflamed skin conditions such as with eczema, acme, pus or psoriasis.
Calendula symbolizes warmth and vitality. In some traditions, it is believed that placing calendula petals under the pillow during the winter solstice night brings good dreams.
Winter Ritual with Calendula: Create a calendula-infused oil by steeping fresh or dried calendula petals in carrier oil, such as jojoba oil. Use this oil for a solstice massage to promote relaxation and warmth.
Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) and the winter solstice*
Herbal Actions: Anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, bitter, cholagogue, emmenagogue, vermifuge, dream herb, sedative
Mugwort is definitely a fan favorite amongst herbalists! Mugwort is often associated as being a “woman’s herb” for its affinity with the uterus. It has great ties to divination and dreamwork. In folklore, it's said to enhance intuition and psychic abilities. It has a power to bring vivid dreams in a protective way.
Artemisia is the first part of Mugwort's botanical name. The Greek goddess Artemis was indeed a protector of women, childbirth, animals and plants.
Mugwort is a boundary plant and can be seen grown on the boundary of a forest and clearings. As Herbalist Vanessa Chakour once said to me during an herb walk in New York City:
"Mugwort is a “fierce look at yourself plant…ask ‘what do I need to see to heal?”
It is a shapeshifter, changing through the seasons, and is often thought to shift perception and more attuned to lucid dreaming, astral projection and meditative qualities. The plant has sedative qualities, breaking up tension.
It has small yellow/red flowers and the root is a rhizome, spreading through runners. A single plant can produce up to 200,000 seeds! The leaves have a beautiful silvery hue underneath, often connected in the Doctrine of Signatures with sleeping/dreamtime.
Mugworts’ strong bitter taste makes this a good digestive bitter, stimulating gastric juices and the release of bile. It is a good liver tonic.
Mugwort is particularly useful as an expectorant, protecting against inflammation of the respiratory system and useful with bronchitis.
There is a long traditional use for muscle spasms, seizures and epilepsy and headaches particularly migraines. It is used for migraine headaches associated with menstruation as well.
Historical and Traditional Use: In the 15th Century Arabic text Herbal Livre des Simples Medicines (Secreta Salernitana), Mugwort was noted to be used in combo with hot opiates for migraines (The Herbal Academy, Intermediate Herbalism Monographs, page 182). As mentioned before, it has a longstanding tradition used for menstruation and even as an abortifacient due to its ability to cause the uterus to contract.
It’s a common herb in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and Japan for moxibustion, aiding in a number of inflammatory ailments.
According to Mrs. Grieves in a Modern Herbal:
“It has also been suggested that the name, Mugwort, may be derived not from 'mug,' the drinking vessel, but from moughte (a moth or maggot), because from the days of Dioscorides, the plant has been regarded, in common with Wormwood, as useful in keeping off the attacks of moths. In the Middle Ages, the plant was known as Cingulum Sancti Johannis, it being believed that John the Baptist wore a girdle of it in the wilderness. There were many superstitions connected with it: it was believed to preserve the wayfarer from fatigue, sunstroke, wild beasts and evil spirits generally.”
Winter Ritual with Mugwort: Wrap mugwort as a bundle and light it as smudge to clear energy. You could also prepare mugwort tea and sip it during a quiet meditation or reflective time on the solstice night. This can enhance dream experiences and inner insights.
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) and the winter solstice*
Herbal Actions: Anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, antioxidant, circulatory stimulant, carminative, antispasmodic, antidepressant, rubefacient, emmenagogue, bitter
Rosemary is a wunderkind of the culinary kitchen herbs and is great to use seasonally during winter. It has strong immune-supporting properties that could be helpful with cold and flus.
The way the leaves grow have this strong, upward movement. In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), this correlates to Yang: masculine energy. It’s circulating and it’s moving. It is helpful in stimluating hair growth and used often in herbal shampoos or haircare formulas.
A simple rosemary tea can help improve alertness and memory recall. In fact, numerous studies have shown the benefits of Rosemary in association with neurodegenerative complications and as a benefit to people with Alzheimer’s Disease.
Traditionally, Rosemary was used to ward off the evil eye. This was particularly true during the black plague and Medieval times. People would sew it into their clothes or keep it in special pouches.
Winter Ritual with Rosemary: Brew a simple cup of rosemary tea while journaling or coloring. Reflect on a time that you really appreciated during this past year. What made you appreciate it? How would you like to carry that into the following year?
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) and the winter solstice*
Herbal Actions: Adaptogen, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antispasmodic, hepatoprotective, hypolipidemic, immuno-modulant, nervine, sedative, thyroid stimulant
Perhaps the trendiest herb of the last 5 years, Ashwagandha has gained popularity due to its powerful adaptogenic qualities that is both calming and enlivening. In 2020, sales of Ashwagandha grew 185% in commercial mainstream channels in the USA (Smith et al. Herbal Supplement Sales in US Increase by Record-Breaking 17.3% in 2020: Sales of immune health, stress relief, and heart health supplements grow during COVID-19 pandemic. Pg 55).
It is commonly used in Ayurveda and its etymology derives from Sanskirt for “that which has the smell of a horse” or gives the vitality and sexual energy of a horse. Indeed, it is thought to be a workhorse of an herb.
Below are some key ways that Ashwagandha works with the body systems.
Nervous System - Ashwagandha helps modulate cortisol levels, making it a great herb for people who are experiencing adrenal fatigue. Some people feel more energized and enlivened by this herb because they’re being supported in going from a state of depletion to more vitality.
The name somnifera comes from the Latin word for sleep and in fact it can be a calming sedative and help with better sleep, rest and repair. It’s good for exhaustion, stress, and ‘cloudy thinking’.
Some people will do better by taking it in the morning and some will do better by taking it at night. It has been used in many clinical trials to not only show its tension-relieving and mood-stabilizing effects but also for better cognitive function.
Immune- Ashwagandha is considered a panacea of an herb. The roots and leaves contains many analgesic, antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory and anti-neoplastic (used to treat cancer) constituents. The sitoindosides which are mostly in the root, when isolated, show to have anabolic, antidepressant and immunostimulant effects.
Endocrine - Ashwagandha has been indicated to increase stimulation of TSH, a thyroid hormone and studies have used it in the treatment of hypothyroidism. That said, it should be avoided by those with overactive thyroid issues.
Historical and Traditional Use: Ashwagandha is traditionally taken as a powder with warm milk before bed in Ayurveda. It is prized in Pakistan, Saudia Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries, utilized for anti-cancer effects.
Winter Ritual with Ashwagandha: Create a warming herbal tea blend using Vata-balancing herbs. This can be a comforting and grounding ritual to counterbalance the cold and dryness of winter.
* These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is provided for purely educational purposes and is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.