Long before Christianity lured ancient cultures into December celebrations, there was the winter solstice, a time to mark the end of long, long nights. In order to boost church enrollment, early Christians just incorporated some of the pagan practices, easing the way to conversion.
Today, we don’t think twice about hanging a wreath and singing carols. We happily give gifts, enjoy a feast, and imbibe…perhaps too much. (Some things never change.) Yet all these traditions have roots in original winter solstice practices.
By the way, St. Augustine firmly believed that Jesus specifically chose the time of the winter solstice for his birth: “He, therefore, who bent low and lifted us up chose the shortest day, yet the one whence light begins to increase.”
What exactly is the winter solstice? And when is it?
Solstice comes from the Latin word solstitium, a combination of sol, for sun, and sistere, to make stand. For ancient astronomers, twice each year, the sun seemed to “pause” before reversing its course.
The winter solstice (also known as hibernal solstice and midwinter) occurs when one of the Earth’s poles has its maximum tilt away from the sun. It’s the shortest day of the year–and the longest night. In the Northern Hemisphere, it usually happens December 21 or 22.
Got it. Where are some famous winter solstice places?
Rome: Saturnalia morphed into Christmas. Long before the first official Christmas festivities in 336 AD, the Roman Empire dedicated its midwinter feast to Saturn, the god of agriculture…and wealth, abundance, and periodic renewal.
Following the annual harvest, Rome shut down for a few days for a blowout celebration. Feasting and drinking, singing songs that would later become carols, and giving gifts. Masters changed places with their slaves, serving them and sharing their bounty. The slaves got to speak freely during Saturnalia, even insulting their owners. Happy holidays? You bet!
Can’t get to Rome? Here’s how to celebrate wherever you are. Be sure to make some mulsum, the Saturnalia honey-wine that citizens drank everywhere, even in the baths. Whip up a batch in 10 minutes:
MULSUM or HONEY-WINE: Yield: 4 to 6 servings.
1/2 cup honey
1 bottle medium-dry red wine (medium-bodied white wine works well, too)
1. Heat the honey in a small saucepan. Do not boil. Remove from the honey and let it cool. (Some recipes skip this step and simply stir the honey into the wine. Your call.)
2. Mix the wine and honey in a pitcher and serve at cool room temperature.
England: Stonehenge at sunset. Although its purpose remains a mystery, Stonehenge seems to have been constructed to track the sun’s movements. Specifically, the stones frame the winter solstice sunset.
England isn’t known for its balmy weather, and ancient people must have dreaded the cold months. Starvation was an annual fear. When the sun finally set between the gap of the tallest trilithon, everyone knew that the days would start to grow longer. Animals would be slaughtered for a feast, the last fresh meat before spring, in gratitude for the return of daylight.
These days, tourists, along with modern Pagans, Druids, and Wiccans gather at Stonehenge on the morning of December 22 to observe winter solstice. For more information on its importance–and how Stonehenge is being threatened by progress–watch this video.
Fun fact: Stonehenge’s primary axis is oriented to the setting sun, while Newgrange, an Irish megalith built in 3200 BC, about 200 years before Stonehenge, lines up with the winter solstice sunrise.
Scandinavia: Midwinter festival goes from pagan to Christian. In Sweden, Norway, and Swedish-speaking areas of Finland, St. Lucia’s Day is celebrated on December 13, marking the beginning of the Christmas season. But it always wasn’t so.
Originally on December 17–coincidentally, the same day as Saturnalia–it was a winter solstice holiday connected to Odin, king of the Norse gods, meant to bring hope and light to the darkest time of year.
The Feast of Juul, a Festival of Lights, lasted for 12 days celebrating the rebirth of the sun. Norse folks burned logs to keep evil spirits away…when the Christians came about 1000 AD, these would be rebranded as a Christmas custom.
St. Lucy was an Italian martyr, who died in the 4th century. Before her untimely demise, she wore candles on her head to free up her hands when bringing food to persecuted Christians who were hiding out in the catacombs of Rome. Apparently monks brought her story with them when they came to Scandinavia, blending Lucy with Juul to create a new holiday. Watch the humorous “Swedish Lucia for Dummies” to get a quick overview of the holiday.
Seems these winter festivals include traditional alcoholic beverages…why not?!? For those in Norse countries, it’s a warm and spicy treat. Yes, please!
Winter solstice wasn’t entirely taken over by Christians
Iran: Celebrating the longest night of the year. Long before Islam became the predominant religion in the Middle East, Yalda was an important tribute to the birth of Mithra. (“Yalda” means birth.) He was the sun god, and each year, people celebrated his conquest of darkness and the return of goodness.
During the dark days and nights, evil spirits roamed, especially the “destructive spirit” Ahriman. Persians still stay up all winter solstice night to avoid being influenced or taken by the spirits. They get together–usually at the homes of grandparents or an elderly person– to eat, talk, exchange good wishes, read poetry, and tell stories until dawn.
Also called Shab-e-Yalda, its food has special significance. The last fruits of summer are shared: a watermelon represents the sun and the pomegranate is a symbol of birth. Nuts and dried fruits represent prosperity. Learn more about this lovely holiday here.
Yalda Night is so significant that it was placed on Iran’s List of National Treasures in 2008. It’s also celebrated in Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Armenia.
China: “Winter Arrives” and everyone gets one year older. If you find yourself in China on the day of the winter solstice, join the Dong Zhi Festival! Families celebrate another year together by eating tang yuan (glutinous rice balls) which symbolize reunion. Family members also turn a year older together and promise to behave better in the coming year.
Dong Zhi was originally the end-of-harvest festival, when laborers returned home from the fields to rejoin their families. After a famous physician, Zhang Zhongjing, saw poor farmers freezing during the north China winter, he served them lamb dumplings to help keep them warm. People continue the respect the tradition, and eat them during Dong Zhi.
It’s also celebrated in Taiwan, Japan, and Korea. Based on the balance of ying and yang energy, people begin to look forward to the longer days ahead. Want to make your own Dong Zhi foods? Here are the recipes!
United States: Native tribes honored midwinter before explorers ever came. Soyal–the winter solstice celebration of the Hopi tribes of northern Arizona–was the religious recognition that days would grow longer. Even more, it was an occasion for purification, as well as bringing the sun back from its slumber. The Hopi also believed that everything for the coming year was determined at Soyal.
“The Peaceful Ones,” as the Hopi were called, spread the Soyalangwul (shortened to Soyal) ritual over 16 days to pray, dance, and prepare for the final sacred Kachina ceremony. Special prayer sticks were crafted for the Shaman.
A Kachina is a powerful divine or ancestral spirit who, if given enough reverence and respect, could use their powers for the well-being and prosperity of the people. They could provide rainfall, healing, fertility, or protection. There were over 500 Kachinas who could interact with the people. Some leave gifts for children during the Soyal celebration.
Hopi ceremonies are generally not open to the public. Learn more about this complex winter solstice celebration here. It’s remarkable that it has been in place since 1100 AD.
Winter solstice: Important for thousands of years
Archeologists and historians agree that the winter solstice was more significant than the summer solstice, because of the need for the sun to provide more daylight. Around the world, cultures celebrated the end of lengthening nights and the hope of spring.
“The winter solstice is the time of ending and beginning, a powerful time…a time to contemplate your immortality. A time to forgive, to be forgiven, and to make a fresh start. A time to awaken.” (Frederick Lenz)
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