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A solstice is defined as one of the two times during the year when the sun is farthest from the tilting planet’s celestial equator.
This means that it also marks the shortest and longest days of the year. The summer solstice, which is around June 21st, is the longest day of the year. It is the peak of the summer before the days begin to slowly shorten. They continue to shorten until the winter solstice, around December 21st, when the sun’s cycle shifts again and the days begin to lengthen.
In the Northern Hemisphere, the winter solstice always occurs on or about December 21 and marks the beginning of the winter season. As many people notice, it’s the shortest day of the year, featuring the least amount of daylight between sunrise and sunset.
In the Southern Hemisphere, this is the time of the summer solstice and the longest day of the year. From now on, as the northern days grow longer so do the southern days get shorter.
We’re drawn to these shifts, as evidenced by the many cultural holidays that exist around the solstices, and their counterparts the equinoxes in spring and autumn. The winter solstice especially is celebrated in nearly every religion, with the celebrations of Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa, to name just a few.
The solstice represents change, and it’s this change that we’re drawn to. The solstice is the perfect opportunity for us to pause before the world shifts from one movement to another and look back at those things that have happened since the last solstice. It is the time to thank our friends for the favors they have done for us, and to acknowledge the changes that have taken place in our lives.
It is also the time to look to the future with purpose. We should look forward and consider our intentions for the coming cycle of the sun, as the days grow longer by a few minutes each day. The word solstice comes from the Latin sol meaning ‘sun’ and sistere meaning ‘to stand still’ because for a moment the sun seems to stand still before shifting its direction. We should also take a moment to stand still before shifting direction.
For half of each year the North Pole is tilted toward the sun, and for half of the year the South Pole enjoys that privilege. This phenomenon creates our changing seasons, because the hemisphere facing the sun receives longer and more powerful exposure to sunlight.
The holiday timing of the winter solstice is rooted in ancient religions. Throughout history, humans have observed this seasonal milestone and created spiritual and cultural traditions to celebrate the rebirth of sunlight after the darkest period of the year.
Traditional solstice celebrations existed in many cultures. The Roman feast of Saturnalia, honoring the God Saturn, was a weeklong December feast that included the observance of the winter solstice. Romans also celebrated the lengthening of days following the solstice by paying homage to Mithra—an ancient Persian god of light.
- The Germanic culture that dominated most of northern Europe gave us the word yule, and the tradition of burning a yule log to ward off evil spirits.
- The Roman feast of Saturnalia was a week-long winter solstice party that overturned social norms, including masters served slaves. Some of the customs, such as gift-giving, may have influenced Christmas traditions.
- The Persian solstice celebration of Yalda traces back hundreds of years, and is commemorated by serving fresh fruit, especially watermelon and family parties.
- In China, the Dong Zhi festival is second only to the Chinese New Year. The festival links yin and yang, the qualities of light and dark or cold and warmth (among others) to the waxing and waning of the sun’s light.
- In Nordic countries, St. Lucia’s or St. Lucy’s Day, celebrated on Dec. 13, may combine a pagan ritual called Lussinatta with the more recent ceremony, which involves young girls wearing a crown of candles on their heads.
Origins of solstice celebration
In pre-historic times, winter was a very difficult time for Aboriginal people in the northern latitudes. The growing season had ended and the tribe had to live off of stored food and whatever animals they could catch. The people would become troubled as the life-giving sun sank lower in the sky each noon. They feared that it would eventually disappear and leave them in permanent darkness and extreme cold. After the passage of the winter solstice, they would have reason to celebrate and regain hope in the future as they saw the sun rising and strengthening once more. Although many months of cold weather remained before spring, they took heart that the return of the warm season was inevitable.
The concept of birth and or death/rebirth became associated with the winter solstice. The Aboriginal people had no elaborate instruments to detect the solstice. But they were able to notice a slight elevation of the sun’s path within a few days after the solstice — perhaps by DEC-25. Celebrations were often timed for about the 25th.