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 . . .
. . . in comparison to the Newgrange prehistoric monument in County Meath, Ireland, which points to the winter solstice sunrise:
Then there is the Goseck circle in Germany, which is aligned to both sunset and sunrise:
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?).
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:
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.
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!