December 21, 2012 is the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere. Following this longest night of the year, the sun begins its return, gradually inching the nights shorter and the days longer. The term solstice means "sun stands still," as the sun seems to pause and catch its breath at that time. As winter passes, the sun begins to warm the earth once again. This year, the mystical date of 12.21.12- the end of the Maya Long Count Calendar- also symbolizes the return of the sun in another way: as the return of the light of higher consciousness. The Maya and the Inca saw themselves as “children of light” who had descended from celestial realms, and their prophecies foretold a time of great spiritual awakening. That time is now.

The longest night of the year marks the return of the light in many cultures and has long been held as a sacred time of year. It used to be celebrated in deeply meaningful ways since the return of the sun was vital to the sustenance of all life. We can see remnants of its importance in places that were built to acknowledge this astronomical event.

For example, at Newgrange, a Stone Age passage tomb in Ireland, the sun shines down its long passageway into the central chamber at the first crack of light on the winter solstice. This World Heritage site is actually much more than a tomb. It is more like an ancient temple for burial services, in the same way as dignitaries can be displayed before the funeral in cathedrals. Each year, people gather at Newgrange on winter solstice to await the dawning of the light, much as was done over 5,000 years ago, and for seventeen minutes as the sun rises, the whole chamber is illuminated. It’s an extraordinary experience to wait in the darkness for the longest night of the year to come to an end, as the old sun dies and the new sun is born. In 2007, for the first time, the illumination at the passage tomb was broadcast live on the Internet, allowing people from around the world to join in this celebration of the return of the light.

It’s often in the deep of winter that gods are said to be born. The infant Jesus, whose birth is celebrated right around the time of winter solstice, brought light back into the world. In the days of the Roman Empire, many of their gods were born near the time of the solstice: Apollo, Attis, Baal, Dionysus, Helios, Hercules, Horus, Mithra, Osiris, Perseus, and Theseus. In the third century, their festivals were combined into one “Birthday of the Unconquered Sun” on December 25th. In Japan, the sun goddess Amateratsu emerges from her cave at this time of year.

All over the world people gather together with loved ones, light candles, decorate their homes, share meals and/or exchange gifts. All these winter holidays—Christmas, Hanukah, Kwanzaa, Saint Lucia Day, Dong Zhi (which literally means “the extreme of winter”), Diwali, Koleduvane (a festival in Belgium for the birth of the sun), Gody (in Poland), Shabe-Yalda (rebirth of the sun as celebrated in Iran) - are all celebrating the return of the light during the darkest time of the year. Pre-Christians used to decorate their homes with plants and branches to acknowledge the returning sun’s ability to promote fertility and growth, which is what evolved into the modern Christmas tree.

Indigenous People hold ceremonies to celebrate the longest night of winter. It has always been a spiritual time to go within and examine your personal darkness in preparation to greet the New Sun. Many of the prophecies that center around the end of 2012 predict that the indigenous peoples of the earth will share with all humanity their teachings—that we all are connected to the Great Spirit and to everything in nature—to provide a foundation for building a peaceful world.

The deep of winter has always been a good time to enter into a meditation retreat to diminish your personal darkness and increase your light. Just as the ideal time for daily meditation is in the hours before dawn when the world is still, so is the deep of winter a time of stillness—the earth is resting in the Northern climes, covered with a blanket of snow, and we are usually inclined to spend more time indoors. (If you would like to take advantage of this contemplative period of time but need instruction, go to www.deborahkingcenter.com/meditate for a download of a basic meditation practice where you receive your own personal mantra, or to www.deborahkingcenter.com/carmel2012 for a livestream of advanced meditation techniques.)

Rituals are another way to mark the return of the light. You can do a simple solstice ritual by yourself or gather a group of friends to honor the return of the light. Lighting fires or candles is always a good way to welcome the solstice.

Winter solstice heralds the eventual return of summer. It means that the worst is over. The sun is not abandoning Mother Earth, but is slowly and surely coming back. Dark days may lie ahead, but they hold the promise of light-filled tomorrows. So when you say "Happy Hanukkah," “Happy Kwanzaa,” "Merry Christmas," "Season's Greetings," or "Happy Holidays," remember what you are really celebrating—hope in a time of darkness. And let your own light shine.

New York Times best-selling author, health & wellness expert, and spiritual teacher Deborah King was a successful attorney in her twenties when she was diagnosed with cancer, which began a quest for healing that would radically change her life. Her amazing recovery led her to leave the corporate arena for the field of energy medicine, where she mastered ancient and modern systems, ultimately developing a powerful technique of her own.