Winter Solstice Celebrations
A solstice (from Latin sol (sun) + stet (standing)) is simply the point in the year when the sun appears to be at its highest or lowest point in the sky. The earth's wobble means that this date and time varies from year to year, but it is easy to predict. The North Pole is tilted 23.45° toward the Sun, and at the time of the winter solstice, the noonday sun is overhead at the Tropic of Capricorn.
The winter solstice is the date of the shortest day, when the sun appears to be at its most southerly - over the years, many peoples have celebrated this day in many ways.
The winter solstice has been celebrated for thousands of years as the time when the sun reaches its lowest point and begins to rise higher in the sky. As both hunter-gatherers and farming communities relied on stored food to see them through the long winters, for many cultures the return of the longer days meant that the plenty of spring was approaching.
We know that the ancients were certainly aware of the movement of the sun. For example, Newgrange is a megalithic stone structure in Ireland. Believed to be five thousand years old, it was built to allow a shaft of sunlight into its central chamber at dawn on the winter solstice. A cairn at Maeshowe, on the Orkney Islands admits the winter solstice setting sun along a passage to the back of the chamber.
Native Americans certainly celebrated the solstice, as marking the changing seasons and the return of the sun, and many modern celebrations derive from the Babylonian religions and culture.
The Middle East
Iranians keep a night-long vigil of bonfires to help the sun goddess Yalda win her battle against the evil darkness. Hanukah, the Jewish Festival of Lights, is also linked to the solstice, being held on the 25th Kislev, three days before the new moon closest to the solstice. The celebration is of the reclaiming of the menorah from the pagan Greeks, and the re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem, and commemorates sprititual rebirth.
The ancient Egyptians celebrated the rebirth of Osiris on December 21st with his symbolic burial and rebirth as an infant at midnight, the priests bringing the image of a child out of his 'burial chamber'.
The ancient Greeks' celebration followed the Egyptian model, with somewhat more in the way of bloodshed, a man being torn apart by women, representing the end of the harvest god Dionysos, with the promise of rebirth through the offspring of one of the women. The human sacrifice was later replaced with a goat, the women becoming mourners.
Rome originally had several celebrations near this time, including the Saturnalia on 17th December. By the year 50 BCE, the festival ran until the 23rd. This was supplemented by many other feasts, including the birth of gods and demigods such as Mithras, Apollo and Hercules. These seperate feasts were later merged by the Emperor Aurelian into the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun (Dies Natalis Invicti Solis), celebrated on 25th December.
The Druids held rituals in their sacred groves and performed fertility rites involving mistletoe, Germanic tribes burned their Yule logs and decorated their homes with evergreens, and Scandanavians lit bonfires and held vigils. Many of these rituals are now associated with the 'Christian' festival we know as Christmas, indeed the date was chosen by the Roman church when they 'Christianised' the festival of Saturnalia.
Festivals such as Diwali, held in October or November, fall outside the scope of the solstice, but nonetheless illustrate the importance of celebrating during the dark winter months.
Modern pagans hold a sabbat to celebrate the winter solstice, often carrying out ritual prayers at sunrise to welcome the beginning of a season of rebirth. Stonehenge is a popular gathering place, as are many other megaliths and stone circles.
There are probably as many celebrations, feasts and rituals as there are cultures and religions, if not on the astronomical solstice, then certainly around that time. The desire to see lengthening days and a return to fertility are behind all of them, and in the 21st century we still look forward to shorter nights and an end to the seasonal gloom, a rise in the spirits and an optimistic look to the future. Seasonal Affective Disorder is a real condition, and it is right and proper that we look forward to the coming of spring and the new year.
Dates of the Winter Solstice (Northern Hemisphere)
2001 21 December
2002 22 December
2003 22 December
2004 21 December
2005 21 December
2006 22 December
2007 22 December
2008 21 December
2009 21 December
2010 21 December
For a more technical look at the solstice, see hobyrne
's writeup in summer solstice