This year (2014), the Winter Solstice or Yule begins on December 21st at 6:03pm EST (or 23:03 Universal Time). This marks the longest night and the shortest day of the year. What’s behind this? It’s when the Sun is directly overhead the Tropic of Capricorn in the Southern Hemisphere and the Sun reaches its most southerly declination of -23.5 degrees.
In English: When the North Pole is tilted furthest – 23.5 degrees – away from the Sun.
This causes the North Pole to experience 24 hours of night where the Sun doesn’t rise at all and the South Pole 24 hours of daylight (referred to as the Midnight Sun).
Origins of Winter Solstice
The Winter Solstice has been celebrated in the Northern Hemisphere across numerous cultures for thousands of years. From its origin, this tradition celebrates the rebirth of the sun and beginning of winter and is one of the oldest winter celebrations known.
Four thousand years ago, the Ancient Egyptians celebrated the rebirth of Ra, god of the sun, every day. As their culture flourished and spread throughout Mesopotamia, so did their practice of worshipping the rebirth of the sun. Reflected in the daily rising and setting of the sun and in the cycle of seasons where days became shorter and crops would die and then flourish again, this cycle of birth, death and rebirth gave rise to the importance of worshipping the rebirth of the sun.
The week long feast of Saturnalia in Ancient Rome worshipped the sun god Saturn. Among other things, Saturn was seen as a god of generation, plenty, wealth, agriculture, and periodic renewal. The Ancient Greeks held a similar lesser festival called Lenaea that, while unknown exactly what type of worship occurred at these festivals, may have been in honour of the rebirth of Dionysos and was held roughly near the beginning of January about the same time as Winter Solstice.
The Ancient Celts and Germanic peoples celebrated to welcome the return of the sun in the coming new year during the Winter Solstice. They prayed for blessings on their homes and brighter days ahead with good hunting, plentiful births among livestock and general bounty and good fortune for all.
During Saturnalia in Ancient Rome, holly wreaths were given as gifts and used as decoration in public areas and homes to honour Saturn during Winter Solstice time.
Ancient Celts would plant holly in their homes as a form of protection as the plant was believed to hold magical powers for its ability to survive the winter months.
The Norse tradition of celebration during this time was called “Yule” and gave us the customs of wassailing, the Yule log and the decorated tree. Germanic peoples would celebrate the winter festival by also honouring the Pagan god Odin. Many believed he would fly through the night sky (on a magical flying horse) and determine who would be blessed or cursed in the coming year.
For the Celtic Druids, mistletoe was a sacred plant called “All Heal.” Priests would cut the plant from the tree, hold a feast and sacrifice animals underneath it. Mistletoe was believed to cure illnesses, serve as an anecdote for poisons, ensure fertility and protect against witchcraft. Some people would hang it from their doorways or rooms to offer goodwill to visitors.
During the Iron Age, the Celts and other ancient Europeans welcomed the Winter Solstice by feasting, merrymaking and sacrificing animals. The Celts believed the sun stood still for 12 days, so they would light a log fire to conquer the darkness while Norse families would light Yule logs around which they would eat until the log burned out – which could take up to 12 days. Each spark from the log was believed to represent a new pig or calf that would be born in the coming new year.
Winter Solstice time traditions in European folklore involve gift-bringers and their origins are connected with the Yule (midwinter) festival in Germanic Paganism and are often associated with the figure of Odin (Wodanaz), the leader of the Wild Hunt. Most of these include the figure of a bearded old man and over time the traditions have mutually influenced each other. In Slavic countries, this figure is mostly referred to as Father Frost. In Scandinavian folklore, an elf-like figure or tomten is typically associated with the Winter Solstice and comes at Yule.
All these traditions reflected goodwill and blessings on home and the peoples’ hopes on brighter days ahead with the return of the sun.
Relation to Christmas
The Christian calendar originally focused on Easter and it wasn’t until the fourth century that the Church decided Jesus Christ’s birthday should be celebrated. Since the Bible did not point to an exact date for this, Pope Julius I chose Dec. 25. Chosen with specific purpose, setting that date was an effort to replace the Roman Saturnalia with a Christian holiday as the Pagans had been resistant to conversion and would not give up their holidays.
As the new religion spread West, Christian churches were built on old Pagan worship sites, and Pagan symbolism continued to be incorporated into the Christmas holiday. Within a few centuries, the Christians were worshipping a new holiday on December 25 and leaders found ways to relate the old Pagan holiday to the Christian one.
“This gave rise to an interesting play on words,” Harry Yeide, a professor of religion at George Washington University, told National Geographic. “In several languages, not just in English, people have traditionally compared the rebirth of the sun with the birth of the son of God.”
The Western Christian Christmas traditions of the decorated tree, gift giving, feasting, wreaths and holly were all Winter Solstice traditions converted into the observance of the new holiday.
Today, modern Pagans celebrate the Winter Solstice in a similar manner to these early traditions by spending time with friends and family, exchanging gifts, lighting candles, throwing bonfires, hosting feasts and decorating their homes.
Yule is one of the eight solar holidays celebrated each year and welcomes the new solar year. As a festival of the returning sun, the most important part of any Yule celebration is light, so includes the lighting of candles, celebrating around bonfires and hearth fires with a traditional Yule log.
Homes are decorated with red, green and white decorations – colours that hark back to the Druidic traditions of holly and mistletoe and white light. Rituals can include meditating in darkness with lit candles, singing Pagan carols while going home to home (known as wassailing) and lighting Yule logs (either in indoor fireplaces or outdoor bonfires). Front doors are often decorated with a hand-made evergreen wreath with holiday herbs to celebrate the continuity of life into the new year and evergreen trees can be decorated with holiday decorations and Pagan symbols.