The winter solstice, or December solstice, occurs around December 21 or 22 in the Northern Hemisphere. It will happen on Saturday 21 at 11.19 p.m. EDT in America (Sunday 22, 04.19 a.m. UTC).
It is a significant observance for some peoples around the world, but it is not a holiday. Businesses, etc. follow normal working hours.
What Is It?
Astronomically, the winter solstice, hiemal solstice or hibernal solstice, in the northern hemisphere, is also known as midwinter. It marks the shortest day, when the North Pole is tilted farthest away from the sun. The day has the shortest period of daylight and the longest night of the year. The sun is at its lowest maximum elevation in the sky.
The word solstice originates from the Latin for sun, “sol”, and ”sistere”, to stand still, because the movement of the sun's path north appears to stop before changing direction. After the shortest day, the days start getting longer and the nights shorter.
In the USA and other parts of the northern hemisphere, it is the official first day of winter. This, however, depends on whether a country follows astronomical or meteorological seasons.
The day had a religious significance for many ancient peoples. They observed the winter solstice in a variety of ways:
The ancient Neolithic structure of Stonehenge in England is thought to have been used as a temple for sun worship, as a royal burial ground, and as an astronomical observatory. For the ancient people of Stonehenge, an agrarian community, the light of the sun was essential for crops. Stonehenge was aligned to frame the winter solstice, to welcome the rebirth of the sun. It seems that they offered animal sacrifices at the same time.
For the ancient Scandinavians, life was represented by the Juul, the wheel. They would light fires to represent the returning sun, and they would burn a yule log to honor the Norse god Thor.
The ancient Celtic calendar revolved around the solstices and equinoxes. The Druids, Celtic priests, would give sprigs of mistletoe as a blessing and a symbol of life in the winter. They would burn a yule log to banish darkness, repel evil spirits and bring good luck for the new year.
In ancient Rome, the festival of Saturnalia, in honor of Saturn, the father of the gods and god of agriculture and time, began on December 17 and lasted 7 days. People would decorate their homes with candles and greenery such as pines and evergreens - symbols of life. Food and treats were hung on trees as gifts for spirits. People gave also gave gifts to each other. People flung caution aside: men dressed as women, masters as servants, etc. Many of these ancient rites can be seen in Christmas celebrations today. Under the ancient Julian calendar, the winter solstice occurred on December 25 and this was also the sun’s birthday, dies Natalis Solis invicti, "day of the birth of the unconquered sun”.
Here are just a few of the ancient traditions still followed around the world:
Dozens of modern-day pagans, druids, and others visit Stonehenge during the solstice to pay homage to the return or rebirth of the sun. They play music and dance or perform other activities in order to welcome the sun back.
Newgrange is a burial mound in Ireland’s Boyne Valley which is thought to be over 5,000 years old, and it contains a passage that is aligned to the sun. Every year, thousands apply to see the first rays of the sun filling the chamber. Only around 60 people get to do it.
Pagans also celebrate yule with several days of feasting and gift-giving, culminating in Winter Solstice Day, the central celebration. They use sacred colors, red, green, and white, and evergreens to decorate their homes. They honor such ancient gods and goddesses as Cronos (Father Time), by lighting candles, burning circle fires outside and yule logs indoors.
In different parts of Asia, people celebrate the solstice, known by such names as Dongzhi or Dongji, by giving gifts and eating special dishes. E.g. The Koreans eat a red bean porridge to repel evil spirits; the Chinese eat balls of rice in a broth.
In Japan, people soak in fruit-filled baths to welcome the sun and protect themselves from catching a cold during the winter.
In Austria, crowds of revelers go to town squares to see and be teased by Krampus, the half-demon, half-goat equivalent to Santa Claus.
In Iran, friends, and family get together for the solstice, Yalda night, and eat dinner, read significant poetry and eat symbolic fruit, such as pomegranates, which represent the dawn of life.