The winter solstice is once again upon the Northern Hemisphere. As we welcome the shortest day of the year, let’s spend some time learning about how our ancestors honored the first day of winter.
A cause for celebration
It’s no coincidence that there are so many holidays around the time of this astronomical event. Since ancient times, people have celebrated the solstice and observed it with a variety of different cultural and religious traditions. Some of these traditions survive even to the present day.
The holiday timing surrounding the winter solstice is rooted in ancient religions. Throughout history, humans have observed this annual milestone and created both spiritual and cultural traditions to honor the “turning of the Sun” after the darkest period of the year.
Traditional solstice celebrations were held in many ancient cultures. The Roman feast of Saturnalia, which honored the God Saturn, was a weeklong feast held in December, which included the observance of the winter solstice. During the feast, it was traditional to offer gifts of imitation fruit (symbolizing fertility), dolls (symbolizing human sacrifice), and candles (reminiscent of the bonfires traditionally associated with pagan solstice celebrations). A mock king was selected, often from a group of slaves or criminals. He was then permitted to behave in an unrestrained manner for the week of the festival, but he was usually killed at the end. The Saturnalia eventually degenerated into a week-long spree of debauchery and crime – giving rise to the modern use of the tern saturnalia, meaning a period of unrestrained license and revelry.
Romans also celebrated the lengthening of days following the solstice by paying homage to Mithra—an ancient Persian god of light.
Christian leaders of the time sought to attract pagans to their faith by adding Christian meaning to these existing festivals.
In modern times, Christians around the world celebrate the birth of Jesus on Christmas Day, which falls on December 25. However, it’s believed that the 25th was chosen to coincide with pagan celebrations of Saturnalia and Natalis Invicti. Some believe that celebrating the birth of the “true light of the world” was set to be near the winter solstice because from that point onwards, the days began to have more daylight in the Northern Hemisphere.
Feast of Juul
Christmas is also referred to as Yule, a word derived from the Norse jól or Juul , referring to the pre-Christian pre-Christian festival observed in Scandinavia at the time of the winter solstice.
Yule is also known as Alban Arthan, which was one of the “Lesser Sabbats” of the Wiccan year in a time when ancient believers celebrated the rebirth of the Sun God and days with more light. This took place each year around the time of the winter solstice and lasted for 12 days.
Dongzhi, or the “arrival of winter,” is an important festival in China. During this time, families get together and celebrate the year they have had. Based on the traditional Chinese celestial calendar, the holiday generally falls between the 21st and 23rd of December. It is thought to have started as an end-of-harvest festival, as workers returned from the fields and enjoyed the fruits of their labors with family. Special foods, such as tang yuan (glutinous rice balls), are enjoyed.
While the festival is no longer as significant as it was 2,000 years ago, Dongzhi is a great example of ancient Chinese traditions that are still acknowledged today.
Soyal is the winter solstice celebration of the Hopi Indians of northern Arizona.
Ceremonies and rituals of Soyal include purification, dancing, and occasionally gift-giving. At the time of the solstice, Hopi welcome protective spirits from the mountains, known as kachinas. During this time, prayer sticks are often crafted and used for blessings and various rituals.
These days, religious observance of the winter solstice are not as common as it once was. However, winter solstice is still celebrated by many. In Iran, families gather on “Yalda night” to eat nuts, pomegranates and watermelons, while reading poetry together in honor of the longest night of the year. Druids still gather at Stonehenge to mark the occasion, and in Germany and Scandinavia, Yule is observed for 12 days.
Whether or not you do anything to honor the shortest day of the year, we can all celebrate that longer days are on the horizon.