The winter solstice marks the shortest day and longest night of the year. It starts the moment the Northern Hemisphere is pointed at its farthest distance from the sun. The winter solstice is the start of astronomical winter usually around the 21st of December depending on the year marking a turning point in the year.
After the winter solstice, days start becoming longer and nights shorter as spring approaches. Cultures around the world have long held feasts and celebrated holidays around the winter solstice. Fire and light are traditional symbols of celebrations held on the darkest day of the year.
Neolithic monuments, such as Newgrange in Ireland and Maeshowe in Scotland, are aligned with sunrise on the winter solstice. Archealogists have theorized that structures such as Stonehenge may have been a place of December rituals for Stone Age people. Ancient Romans were known to hold several celebrations around winter solstice.
Saturnalia is a holiday that honors Saturn the god of agriculture. Saturnalia was a weeklong celebration leading up to the solstice. This was a hedonistic time, when food and drink were plentiful. For a week social order was turned upside down, businesses and schools were closed so everyone could enjoy the festivities.
On December 25th the ancients celebrated the birthday of Mithra, an ancient Persian god of light. In the later Roman Empire, Mithra blended with Sol Invictus, god of the “unconquered sun.” Some theorists believe the early Roman Catholic Church may have chosen the same date for Christmas in order to supplant pagan rituals. The ancient Norsemen of Scandinavia celebrated Yule from the winter solstice through January.
In recognition of the return of the sun, fathers and sons would bring home large logs, which became known as Yule logs. They would set one end of these logs on fire and feast until the log burned out. The Norse believed that each spark from the fire represented a new calf or pig that would be born during the coming year. Hordes of revelers descend on Hollabrunn, Austria each year to watch a swarm of people dressed like Krampus- a half demon, half-goat counterpart to Santa Claus – terrorize and tease the crowd in horned masks, fur body suits and whips.
According to Germanic folklore Krampus is a figure that punishes bad children by whipping and snatching them. The traditional Krampus run in Austria is believed to ward off bad spirits near the winter solstice. In Japan, people traditionally soak in hot baths with yuzu citrus fruits to welcome the winter solstice and protect their bodies from the common cold.
In Ireland, an annual lottery is held were a handful of people will be lucky enough to stand inside the Newgrange monument and absorb the first rays of sun. Newgrange is a burial mound in Irleand’s Boyne Valley that is over 5,000 years old. The Stone Age monument contains a 62 foot passage that leads into a chamber that is aligned with the sun as it rises during the winter solstice. More than 32,500 people applied for a spot inside the chamber last year. Only 60 of them were picked from the lottery to partake in the annual ritual. Where ever you find yourself this solstice take a moment to appreciate the ancient magic of the solstice.