Wednesday 21 December marks the 2016 Winter Solstice, a day that has been celebrated by pagans by thousands of years and the root of many Christmas traditions. Here we look at exactly what the Winter Solstice is, and how to celebrate this special event.
What is the Winter Solstice?
In the Northern Hemisphere, the December Solstice marks the shortest day of the year, and the official beginning of Winter. The Solstice happens at the same instant for everybody on the planet, and is the point in the day when the sun is farthest south, shining directly over the Tropic of Capricorn. This Solstice will happen at 10.44am GMT this year, and marks the turning of the sun, meaning the days will slowly begin to grow longer as we head towards Spring.
The History of the Winter Solstice
The first people to inhabit the Earth noticed patterns in the movement of the sun and the length of daylight throughout the year, and so they built monuments such as Stonehenge as a way to track the Sun’s progress over time.
The Winter Solstice has been celebrated for thousands of years by pagans, and every year people still travel to Stonehenge in droves to celebrate the event, and watch the sunrise on the shortest day of the year.
Many of the traditions we now associate with Christmas actually have their roots in ancient Winter Solstice celebrations, such as mistletoe and Christmas trees. The priests of the ancient Celtic tribes, the Druids, celebrated everlasting life during Winter Solstice rituals by using Evergreen trees, mistletoe and Holly.
Now, Christians across the world celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ on 25 December. It’s believed that the specific date was chosen to counter the pagan celebrations of Saturnalia and Natalis Invicti. It is also believed that the date of the celebration of the birth of the ‘true light of the world’ was specifically chosen to synchronise with the December Solstice.
Christmas is also known as ‘Yule’, derived from the Norse word jól, which means ‘wheel’ and refers to the Winter Solstice festival. The word ‘Yule’ is also one of the ‘Lesser Sabbats’ in the Wiccan year, when the rebirth of the Sun God was celebrated by the ancient believers.
How do I celebrate the Winter Solstice?
Due to the interwoven history and traditions, there are a number of ways to incorporate acknowledging and celebrating the Winter Solstice into your usual Christmas celebrations.
Christmas decorations have modernised in recent years, with more people choosing to decorate their tree and houses in colours such as blue and silver. However, traditional Christmas colours are also associated with sacred pagan traditions, and you can celebrate the Winter Solstice by sticking with tradition and decorating in red, white and green.
Choose an evergreen wreath, and place pinecones and holly in your social rooms such as living and dining rooms. Hang a sprig of mistletoe in a major doorway (usually the front door, or the entrance to the living room) and stick with tradition by leaving it there to bring good luck throughout the next year.
Instead of getting a fake tree, why not choose a harvested evergreen tree and decorate it in pagan colours and symbols.
Honour the new solar year
The Winter Solstice is a celebration of the sun, and so it is only right to celebrate the beginning of the new solar year. Why not hold a Solstice Eve ritual, and ask everybody to light a candle to welcome the birth of the sun.
Decorate your house with plenty of candles and display a pentagram of white or blue lights. If you have a log fire, choose a special oak log to burn on the day of the new year, to honour the legend of the mighty oak tree that was cut down by Saint Boniface in the 8th century.
Watch the sunrise and the sunset
Perhaps the most obvious - and the most popular - way to celebrate the day is to wake early and watch the sunrise. As we mentioned above, many people still make the journey to Stonehenge every year to watch the sunrise from there. However, this isn’t possible for many people.
Instead, why not go to your favourite place outside that is easy to get to, and take the opportunity to sit quietly and enjoy the moment. This year, the sun will rise in the UK at 08:04am, and set again at 15.54, so if possible, take some time to watch both and acknowledge the shortest day of the year.
Hold a Solstice Feast
Many people are busy over Christmas with their own families, and so you may not have the opportunity to celebrate with them. Instead, why not invite people over on the 21st for a Solstice Feast?
Make sure each person has their own candle, and before the meal go around the table as each person makes a wish and lights their candle.
You could also include a ‘solar dessert’, such as a cake or a pie with an image of the sun on it, to remind people of the reason you are celebrating.