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A Brief History on the Astronomical and Spiritual Significance of the Winter Solstice

Depending on where you are in the world and who you ask, the winter solstice has many names: Yule, midwinter, hiemal solstice, hibernal solstice, solstice night, and colloquially, the longest night.

This year, the winter solstice — or, when the North Pole tilts farthest away from the sun — falls on Wednesday, December 21. It often falls on the 21st, but because the modern calendar’s 365 days per year do not correspond with the 365.2422 days of the solar year, the solstice can fall anytime between the 20th and the 23rd — at least in the Northern Hemisphere (in the Southern Hemisphere the winter solstice occurs in June).

That said, solstices falling on the 20th or 23rd are quite rare — the next December 20th solstice will be in 2080 and the next December 23rd solstice isn’t until 2303. No matter the exact date, it marks the shortest day and longest night of the year, as well as the first day of winter on the astronomical calendar.

An Astronomical Event

The moon
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The winter solstice relates to the tilt of the earth on its axis and where it falls on its orbit around the sun. Specifically, when the sun hits its most southerly declination of -23.45 degrees away from the Northern Hemisphere and is directly above the Tropic of Capricorn in the Southern Hemisphere, northerners experience the least sunlight and the fewest hours of daylight. And because the sun is so low — closer to the horizon than at any other time throughout the year — your shadow will appear longer than on any other day of the year.

In fact, the word solstice is derived from the Latin words sol (or sun) and sistere, meaning to stand still — literally translating to “sun standing still.” Folks along the aforementioned Tropic of Capricorn will note the sun does appear to stand still during solstice. The sun keeps moving elsewhere in the world, despite its brief appearance. Londoners will only get seven hours and 50 minutes of daylight while New Yorkers see almost nine hours. Residents of Fairbanks, Alaska, however, will only see the sun for about three hours and 40 minutes; and the area above the Arctic Circle receives no sunlight at all..

However, the sunset isn’t the earliest on the winter solstice. The dates do not coincide, again, because of the differences between solar time and modern timekeeping. The earliest sunset generally happens a few days before winter solstice (it was on December 7 this year). While these short days and long nights can seem rather bleak, the good news is that after the winter solstice, days start getting incrementally longer again — that is, until the summer solstice returns in June.

Ancient History and Enduring Culture

Pile of logs
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The winter solstice has been celebrated with feasts, rituals, and various holidays all over the world since ancient times. It is believed that even during the last part of the Stone Age, somewhere around 10,200 B.C., humans were observing the phenomenon — at least as a significant period in the annual cycle relating to crop planting and animal husbandry, and its symbolizing death and rebirth.

Neolithic monuments in Ireland and Scotland that date from this era are physically aligned with the winter solstice sunrise; it is theorized that these structures hosted sun-capturing rituals on the year’s shortest days. Meanwhile, the world-famous Stonehenge — likely built between 3000 and 2000 B.C. — aligns with the solstice’s sunset.

In this cold, northern region, feast days would have coincided with the winter solstice because wine and beer fermentation would have finished by then, and a bounty of cattle and other livestock would have been slaughtered in advance of the coldest stretch of winter, when feeding such animals was most difficult.

In Ancient Rome, a number of holidays were celebrated around the time of winter solstice, including Saturnalia, a bacchanalian feast honoring Saturn, the god of agriculture. By December 25, ancient Romans celebrated an ancient Persian god of light called Mithra. In fact, some scholars believe the Roman Catholic Church may have chosen this date for Christmas as a way of moving away from rituals considered pagan.

December solstice was celebrated by pre-Christian Scandinavians with the Feast of Juul — a precursor to the modern Yule or yuletide season. Here, people would celebrate the Norse god Thor with a slow-burning log or sometimes an entire tree placed in the hearth. The fire and this yule log represented the lengthening days. After 12 days burning the yule log, the remains would be used as a fertilizer, retained as a charm, or sometimes squirrelled away for use as kindling in the following year's yule celebration. Similar rituals took place in England, Germany, France, and other parts of Europe. Notably, the French would keep the ashes under their beds as protection for their homes. It is believed that the modern yule log originated from this custom.

Iranians and other Central Asian states still celebrate Yalda on the winter solstice with an all-night celebration of traditional food and poetry. Like the Romans, the feast was in tribute to the ancient god Mithra, and it marks the sun’s renewal and the triumph of light over darkness and the devil. Ancient Mayans practiced a ritual called Palo Volador (translated literally as the “Flying Pole Dance”). Guatemala and parts of Mexico still have the colorful affair — men in costume will climb a tall wooden pole, which can be between 50-100 feet tall, and will spin around the pole as they inch closer to the ground. It was believed that if the men landed on their feet when they reached the ground, the sun god would be satisfied and grant them longer days. Ancient Incas also celebrated the winter solstice and the sun god with their Inti Raymi festival, where mirrors were used to capture sunlight and start fires and ceremonial offerings were made.

Celebrating the Winter Solstice Today

Man standing in the sun at Stonehenge
Credit: Lewis Whyld - PA Images/ Getty Images

Wherever you are, it is possible to witness a winter solstice sunrise that aligns with a landmark or city street — whether or not it was intentional, the effect is amazing.

But Stonehenge remains the most notable spot to mark the winter solstice. Alban Arthan, Welsh for “Light of Winter,” is one of the only times the monument isn’t roped off and observers are welcome to get a close-up view. The holiday is believed to be one of humankind’s oldest seasonal celebrations, and it is the most significant day of the year for Pagan and druid communities. It is a chance to commemorate nature’s power and marks the figurative death of the old sun at dusk on the solstice, and the arrival of the new sun and a new year the following dawn. These communities peacefully gather in traditional robes and costumes to witness that first post-solstice dawn.

In Scandinavian countries, St. Lucia’s Day is a festival of lights that falls on the winter solstice. It marks the beginning of the Christmas season with processions of young women wearing candles on their head, symbolically lighting the way through a long winter in celebration of early Christian martyr Saint Lucy.

The Chinese celebrate Dong Zhi — which translates to “winter arrives” — an occasion marking longer days and celebrating the previous year. It also corresponds to the strengthening of the positive or muscular yang (one half of the Chinese phenomenon of yin and yang), an increase in positive energy. In Japan, the winter solstice is marked with Toji, a custom centered on starting the new year in good health. And, some Native American communities also celebrate the solstice as a signifier of new beginnings.

Vancouver, Canada famously celebrates the winter solstice with the Solstice Lantern Festival — another festival of light. Participants create and release lanterns, form processions, and wander a Labyrinth of Light maze that features some 600 candles. A commemoration and amalgamation of solstice rituals from around the world, it’s a chance to abandon the negative thoughts of the previous year and embrace the new possibilities of a new year — a practice that is as universal as the rising and setting sun.