WInter Solstice Celebrations Through Time

Winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere over Asia

The word solstice comes from the Latin word, solstitium, which means ‘Sun standing still’. The December solstice is the day on which the Sun is at its most southerly point, directly overhead at the Tropic of Capricorn, before it reverses its direction and gradually starts to move north again.  The image above shows the winter solstice in the Northen Hemisphere over Asia.  (Author: Jecowa at English Wikipedia. Creative Commons).

To people in the Northern Hemisphere the winter solstice means the longest night, with the latest dawn and shortest day of the year, with the sun at its lowest point in the sky. The day after the winter solstice marks the beginning of lengthening days, as we head towards the summer solstice on June 21st 2016.

For those in the Southern Hemisphere the opposite is true: people will experience the shortest night and the earliest dawn, with the longest day and the sun at its highest point in the sky.

The December solstice happens at the same time everywhere on Earth. This year it is on Tuesday, December 22nd (today!) at 04:49 GMT/Universal time. At Stonehenge, in Wiltshire, UK, the sun rose this morning at 08:04. The time is different every year, and can be between December 20th and 23rd, although it’s rarely on the two extremes.  The last time it was on December 23rd was in 1903, which will not happen again until 2303.

Interpretations of the winter solstice have varied worldwide and across cultures, but many have involved the recognition of  the rebirth of sunlight after the darkest time of year. As such, it has been celebrated with holidays, gatherings, festivals and rituals around that time. Many of these celebrations have been observed since the earliest times.

The prehistoric monument of Stonehenge in Wiltshire, UK (constructed  from 3000-2000 BC) is aligned on a sight-line that points to the winter solstice sunset . . . 

Sunrise between the stones at Stonehenge on the winter solstice. Author: Mark Grant. Creative Commons.
Sunrise between the stones at Stonehenge on the winter solstice. Author: Mark Grant. Creative Commons.

. . . in comparison to the Newgrange prehistoric monument in County Meath, Ireland, which points to the winter solstice sunrise:

Newgrange prehistoric monument, County Meath, Ireland. Author: Shira. Creative Commons
Newgrange prehistoric monument, County Meath, Ireland. Author: Shira. Creative Commons

Then there is the Goseck circle in Germany, which is aligned to both sunset and sunrise:

Neolithic site of the Goseck circle. The yellow lines are the direction the Sun rises and sets at winter solstice. Author: de:Benutzer:Rainer Zenz, Public Domain
Neolithic site of the Goseck circle. The yellow lines are the direction the Sun rises and sets at winter solstice. Author: de:Benutzer:Rainer Zenz, Public Domain

It is believed that the winter solstice was more important to the people who constructed Stonehenge than the summer solstice. The winter solstice was a time when cattle were slaughtered, so they would not have to be fed throughout the winter, and most of the wine and beer was finally fermented by then, and could be enjoyed.

In ancient Rome, the winter solstice was celebrated with a festival called Saturnalia. This began on December 17th and lasted for seven days. Saturnalian banquets were held as far back as 217 BCE to honour Saturn, the father of the gods. It began with  a sacrifice at the Temple of Saturn in the Roman forum, followed by a public banquet, a private gift giving and continuous partying!

The carnival overturned Roman social norms, being more like a free-for-all, when all discipline and orderly behaviour was ignored; colourful clothes replaced the formal togas. Wars were interrupted or postponed, gambling was permitted and slaves were served by their masters. All grudges and quarrels were forgotten (but were they suddenly remembered again afterwards, I ask?).

Dice players on a wall in Pompeii. Author: WolfgangRieger. Public Domain
Dice players on a wall in Pompeii. Author: WolfgangRieger. Public Domain

At the gift giving (December 19th) it was traditional to offer gifts of imitation fruit – a symbol of fertility. Dolls were given, which were symbolic of human sacrifice, and so were candles – a reminder of the bonfires associated with pagan solstice celebrations. The whole festival would become a week-long orgy of debauchery and crime:

Saturnalia sculpture by Ernesto Biondi: a bronze copy n the Botanical Gardens in Buenos Aires. (Original in the National Gallery of Modern art in Rome). Uploaded by Roberto Fiadone. Creative Commons
Saturnalia sculpture by Ernesto Biondi: a bronze copy n the Botanical Gardens in Buenos Aires. (Original in the National Gallery of Modern art in Rome). Uploaded by Roberto Fiadone. Creative Commons

In the Norse lands of pre-Christian Scandinavia, the winter solstice was celebrated with the feast of Jul (or jól), from which we get the terms Yule and Yuletide. Yule is what later evolved into today’s Christmas, though the Danes still call it Jul. The Danish Vikings sacrificed and offered up goods and animals to the gods in order to conquer the darkness of winter. Then they drank a toast for the year and for peace. The toast was very important and a beaker of beer was offered to the gods. Then the people would toast and drink and thank each other and the gods for the past year and welcome in the new.

People would light fires to symbolise the heat and light of the returning sun and a Jul /Yule log was brought in and dropped in the hearth as a tribute the god Thor. The Yule log was often an entire tree, carefully chosen and brought into the house with great ceremony and sometimes, the largest end of the log would be placed into the fire hearth, while the rest of the tree stuck out into the room.

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Image from Shutterstock

I wrote a short post about the Yule log last December, with a brief paragraph from Shadow of the Raven describing the Yule celebrations. It can be found here.

The log would be lit from the remains of the previous year’s log which had been stored away and, later on, in Christian times, was often fed into the fire through the Twelve Days of Christmas. The log was burned until nothing but ash remained, then the ashes were collected and either strewn on the fields as fertiliser every night until Twelfth Night or kept as a charm and or as medicine. A piece of the log was kept as both a token of good luck and as kindling for the following year’s log.

These are just three of the ways in which peoples of the past celebrated the winter solstice. There are many others from different times and cultures, but I can’t do them all. There’s only a couple of hours left of December 22nd, 2015, here in the UK, so the shortest day has almost been and gone . . .

All I can say is that it was incredibly short!

Christmas Tree

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Long before the advent of Christianity, people celebrated the winter solstice (December 21-22 in the northern hemisphere) with festivals. These were intended to brighten up the darkest time of year and prevent people from sinking into deep depression. They would bring lots of greenery indoors – branches of evergreens in particular, including spruce, fir and pine and, of course, holly and ivy. The evergreen tree was seen as a symbol of life in the midst of winter, many people believing that evergreens would keep away witches, ghosts, evil spirits and illness.

In some ancient civilisations, the sun was revered as a god. To the ancient Egyptians, for example, Ra was the Sun God. In the cold winter months the god would become weak and sick, and the solstice, the shortest day of the year, represented the turning point.  After that time the days would gradually lengthen and the god would start to grow well again.

Many traditions we have today came from ancient civilisations which were later converted to Christianity. Such traditions include gift-giving from the Roman Saturnalia, and burning the Yule log and enjoying a variety of foods from Norse and Germanic feasts.  Scandinavians today still call Christmas, Jul.

To many people, Christmas would not be the same without the resinous smell of pine or fir trees inside their homes.  Although lots of people opt for artificial trees nowadays -whether for environmental reasons, the mess of dropped needles, or the cost of buying anther tree every year – the sale of ‘real’ trees is still booming. But where did this tradition come from?

There are several stories about the earliest use of whole fir trees at Christmas. One story tells us that, in the early 8th Century, Saint Boniface travelled from Britain across Germany to convert the pagans to Christianity. Coming across a group of pagans about to sacrifice a young man beneath Odin’s sacred oak, he valiantly rescued the young man and cut down the tree.  Some legends have it that in place of the oak, a single fir tree grew. Other legends tell us that Boniface himself planted the fir. Whichever version is true, it seems that that the following year the converted Germans decorated the young fir (irrespective of the miniscule size that a year-old fir would be!)

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Boniface cutting down the oak – Wikimedia Commons

One of the earliest references to whole trees actually being brought indoors comes from  Germany in the 16th Century. One story holds that the Protestant reformer, Martin Luther, was the first to add lighted candles in an attempt to replicate the brilliance of stars twinkling amidst the evergreens.

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Queen Charlotte Wikimedia Commons

Although Prince Albert , the German husband of Queen Victoria, is generally given credit for introducing the Christmas tree into English homes, it was actually Queen Charlotte,  the German wife of George III, who set up the first Christmas tree at Queen’s Lodge, Windsor, in 840.

In Victorian times, trees were decorated with sweets and cakes hung with ribbon, and candles as a reminder of the stars in the sky on the night of Christ’s birth. Today, candles have been replaced by coloured lights, and cakes by a variety of ornaments and baubles.

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Giant Norway Spruce in Trafalgar Square

The most famous tree in Britain stands in Trafalgar Square – a giant Norway Spruce , which is a yearly gift from Norway. It is sent to the British people in thanks for the help given to King Haakon VII, who was exiled to Britain after the German occupation of Norway during WW2.

In the US, trees were not accepted until a little later, despite the many German settlers in Pennsylvania.  As late as 1840, Christmas trees were still seen as a pagan symbol by most Americans, and many  of the New England Puritans tried to stamp out what they called the ‘pagan mockery of the observance’.  It was not until the influx of German and Irish immigrants that this puritan legacy was abandoned. In the US today, perhaps the most famous tree stand in the Rockefeller Center in New York.

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The first tree being erected in the Rockefeller Center in 1931. Wikimedia Commons

This custom dates back to the Depression Era days, and the tallest tree was in 1948, a Norway Spruce standing 100 foot tall. It came from Killingworth in Conneticut.

In our house we always have a real tree – and always a Norway Spruce. The smell is just amazing. We always buy from a regular ‘Christmas Tree Farm’, so I don’t feel at all guilty about damaging the environment. There is an ongoing system whereby all cut trees are replaced by newly planted ones. We go to the large estate at Doddington Hall, about five miles away. Doddington is a small, stately hall with an enormous estate on which the trees are grown (as well as wonderful fields of strawberries for ‘pick your own’ in June and July). They have different species on offer, including Norway Spruce and Nordman Fir – which has stiffer needles than the spruce, so it doesn’t drop as readily, but which doesn’t have the right smell for me.

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Doddington Hall, Lincolnshire, UK
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Nordman Fir
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Sign at Doddington Hall with the old church behind

Our tree goes in the conservatory which is off our lounge so we just have the connecting doors open over Christmas. The floor in there is wooden, so the needles are easier to sweep up, and the outside door means it goes out that way when it’s dropping needles like crazy after Christmas. We have a seven-footer this year. On the top is a fairy (or it could be an angel – it’s hard to tell!). It was made years ago at school by our youngest son when he was six, and the tree wouldn’t be the same without it.

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