Winter Solstice

Why are there so many Holidays and Holy Days at this time of year? Why do so many of them, especially in the Northern Hemisphere, seem to emphasize light, especially light in contrast to the darkness? Likely this is because of the Winter Solstice.

Stonehenge, a Celtic monument built for the Solstices, perhaps as much as 5000 years ago.
source: wikimedia commons/Mark Grant/(CC BY 2.5)

The longest night of the year. The shortest day. The Winter Solstice occurs on December 21 (in some years December 22) as the North Pole reaches its maximum tilt away from the sun. The North Pole will experience continuous darkness, the Polar region near total darkness, and the northern hemisphere its shortest day and longest night. Winter begins. Most populations will experience the darkest and coldest time of year.

It is a time where people crave light and warmth, and so it seems natural that the feasts and festivals of December emphasize those things. Moreover, at the darkest moment, hope is renewed, as after the solstice the days will get longer. This is hope for more light, more warmth. Spring will come eventually. New birth. New life.

And so many different observances, feasts, and festivals emereged at this time of the year, many on the day of the Solstice, and others near to it on the calendar.

  • Yule: Celtic Europe, Scandinavia and Germanic peoples.
  • Alban Arthan: Wales
  • Modranhit: Anglo-Saxon Europe
  • Korochun: Slavic Eastern Europe
  • Shalako, Soyal :Native American peoples
  • Yalda: Iran/Persians
  • Dongzhi: China & East Asia
  • Lohri & Maghi: India, especially the Punjab
  • Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, Brumalia & Saturnalia: Ancient Rome

Of course, we have spent the last few weeks observing the many holidays and holy days of this time of year. It is not a coincidence that celebrations such as Christmas and New Year have grown to be huge events in the western world, and by extension other cultures, as the west has extended its influence around the globe. In places where modern conveniences such as lighting and heating offset the effect of the cold and dark of December, we might overlook how important it was for our ancestors to hope for the seeming death of one year to turn into the life of a new year, and to celebrate such rebirth.

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