Solstice means “sun standing still.” In the Northern Hemisphere, it is the first day of winter, the shortest day and longest night of the year, occurring on the 20th, 21st or 22nd of December.
Earth is nearer the sun in January than it is in June – by almost 5 million km (3 million miles). Earth leans slightly on its axis. It is 23 degrees and 27 minutes off the perpendicular to the plane of orbit. This planetary pose is what causes all the variety of our climate, since it determines how many hours and minutes each hemisphere receives sunlight.
When it is winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, the sun is directly overhead at noon only along the Tropic of Capricorn, on which lie Sao Paulo, Brazil, southern Madagascar, and northern Australia.
To pagans, winter solstice was the night that the Great Mother Goddess gave birth to the new sun, restarting the cycle of the seasons. It is also called Yule, the day a huge log – the Yule Log – is added to a bonfire, around which everyone would dance and sing to awaken the sun from its long winter sleep. In Roman times, it became the celebrations honouring Saturnus (the harvest god) and Mithras (the ancient god of light), a form of sun worship that had come to Rome from Syria a century before with the cult of Sol Invictus. It announced that winter is not forever, that life continues, and an invitation to stay in good spirit.
Older than the pyramids
The oldest written reference of a festival to mark the return of the sun is made to the Mesopotamians. They held a 12-day festival to help the god Marduk tame the monsters of chaos for one more year. There are hundreds of megalithic structures throughout Europe and sacred sites in the Americas, Asia, Indonesia, and the Middle East are oriented to the solstices and the equinoxes. Even cultures that followed a moon-based calendar seem to have understood the importance of sun-facing seasonal turning points. In England, there is Stonehenge, and in Ireland, Newgrange, a huge circular stone structure estimated to be 5,000 years old, older by centuries than Stonehenge and the Egyptian pyramids. Seahenge, a Bronze Age timer circle, was discovered only in 1998 at Holme-Next-to-the-Sea in Norfolk, Maeshowe, on the Orkney Islands north of Scotland. Seahenge has been dated to between April and June 2050BC. These structures were built to receive a shaft of sunlight into their central chambers at dawn on winter solstice.
The meridian line in churches
Medieval Catholic churches were also built as solar observatories. The clergy needed astronomy to predict the date of Easter, and built observatories into cathedrals and churches throughout Europe. Typically, a small hole in the roof admitted a beam of sunlight, which would trace a path along the floor. The path, called the meridian line, was often marked by inlays and zodiacal motifs. The position at noon throughout the year, including the extremes of the solstices, was always carefully marked.
The introduction of Christmas
In the year 274AD, solstice fell on 25th December. Roman Emperor Aurelian proclaimed the date as “Natalis Solis Invicti,” the festival of the birth of the invincible sun. In 320 AD, Pope Julius I specified the 25th of December as the official date of the birth of Jesus Christ. In 325AD, Constantine the Great, the first Christian Roman emperor, finally changed the ancient solstice celebrations into Christmas, announcing that it would be an immovable feast, officially celebrated as the birth of Christ. Even so, Christmas did not become widely popular until the 19th Century.
According to legend, Saint Lucia was a martyr in the persecutions of Diocletian at Catania in Sicily in 304AD. Prior to the calendar reform – from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar in 1582 – Saint Lucia’s feast day fell on the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice. In some countries, St. Lucia’s Day is still celebrated with the serving of a braided bread in the shape of the sun called a saffron Lucia and the lighting of candles to announce that light conquers darkness.
The winter solstice, 21st December, is named to St. Thomas the Apostle. It is the shortest day of the week, thus fitting well to the apostle whose faith was weak. Contrarily, the summer solstice, 21st June, is named to St. John the Baptist for just the opposite reasons.
The snowman is part of Christmas in the Northern Hemisphere.
In the Southern Hemisphere, it is pretty hot at Christmas time.
The Earth orbits the Sun at an average speed of 29.79 km/s (18.51 miles/sec, or 67,000 miles/hour).
It takes light 8 min 20 sec to travel from the sun to the earth. Light travels at a speed of 3X10^5 km/sec, or 299 792 km per second (186,281 miles per second).
Evergreens and trees were cherished at solstice as a natural symbol of rebirth and life amid winter whiteness. The annual Tree Festival is still celebrated among nature-based faiths such as Wicca. This tree festival was eventually adopted as use for the Christmas tree.
Many legends survived from the time of pagan solstice celebrations. In Scandinavia, the Julbukk, or Yule goat, was the carrier for the god Thor. Now he carries the Yule elf on the rounds to deliver presents and receive his offering of porridge.
From Iceland comes the legend of the sinister and gargantuan Yule Cat who ate lazy humans.
Thanks to Susanna Viljanen for contributing to this story.