The winter solstice is a magical time. The shortest day and the longest night of the year has been celebrated in cultures the world over for thousands of years. This year, 2016, it occurs on December 21st at 2:44 a.m. PST in the northern hemisphere of our planet as the Earth’s axis tilts furthest from the Sun.
Ancient peoples followed the sun’s path to know when to sow, when to slaughter cattle and when to monitor food supplies. Their survival was at stake. They built monuments like Stonehenge, Machu Picchu in Peru, Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, and Chichen Itza in Mexico to track the sun’s annual progress.
New Grange in Ireland, built around 3200 B.C., is one such monument. For five days over the winter solstice, a beam of sunlight illuminates a small room inside the mound for seventeen minutes at dawn. Every year, thousands enter a lottery in hopes of being one of the hundred people allowed to enter and mark the passage of the Sun.
In northern Europe and Scandinavia, the celebration is known as Yule from the Norse word, Jul, meaning wheel. Modern customs, like the Christmas tree, the Christmas wreath, and the Yule log are all descendants of these traditions. The Romans called this time of the year Saturnalia and decorated their homes with red and gold.
Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun) was a Syrian god later adopted as the chief god of the Roman Empire. His holiday is celebrated on December 25, as are several gods associated with the winter solstice. In 273 A.D., the Christian church selected this day to represent the birth of Jesus, and by 336 A.D., this Roman solar feast day was Christianized. January 6, Epiphany in the Christian church, associated with the visit of the Magi, was originally an Egyptian date for the Winter Solstice.
Today’s Santa is a folk figure with multicultural roots. He embodies characteristics of Saturn (the Roman agricultural god), Cronos (a Greek god, also known as Father Time), the Holly King (Celtic god of the dying year), and Father Ice/Grandfather Frost (a Russian winter god).
And let’s not forget the Goddesses. The Great Mother has been honored in many cultures through countless centuries – the Egyptian Isis, Holda, the Teutonic earth goddess of good fortune, Bona Dea, a Roman goddess of abundance and prophecy, and Befana, an Italian witch who gives gifts to children at this season.
No matter how you celebrate the solstice season, it’s a time to be close to loved ones, to give gifts, to share your bounty with those less fortunate, and to feast and make merry. Just think of all the peoples of the Earth who have celebrated on this magical night by building fires and lighting candles against the dark, marking this season and this moment in the heavens.
Happy Winter Solstice to all ~