Christmas is fast approaching, but before it gets here there is another day to celebrate, and you may have heard people talking about it. The Winter Solstice has been celebrated by Pagans for thousands of years, and many of the modern Christmas traditions are actually rooted in the early Solstice celebrations. So when is the Winter Solstice and what does it mean? Here we look at this very important date and how it is celebrated.
When and What is the Winter Solstice?
Thursday 21st December marks the Winter Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere. Many people think that the solstice is the name for the full day, but it is actually a specific point in time. The 2017 Winter Solstice will happen at 4:28pm GMT, and it is the moment that the sun will be shining directly overhead the Tropic of Capricorn in the Southern Hemisphere, and the North Pole is tilted furthest away.
The term Solstice comes from the Latin ‘solstitium’, which literally means ‘stand still’. On the day of the Solstice, the Sun appears to stand still in its position over the Tropic of Capricorn, and then changes its direction.
In the Northern Hemisphere, the day of the Winter Solstice is the shortest day of the year, with exactly 7 hours, 49 minutes and 59 seconds of daylight. However, from this point on, the days will begin to get longer as we approach Spring. Of course, in the Southern Hemisphere the seasons are reversed, meaning that for those people it is the Summer Solstice, and the longest day of the year. Those people will begin to experience shorter days until their own Winter Solstice in June.
For those people who live in the North of the Arctic Circle, they won’t actually get any daylight on this day, as the North Pole tilts away from the sun at the point of the Solstice. This is called a polar night.
How is the Winter Solstice Celebrated?
The Solstice has been celebrated for thousands of years, and it is a very important date for Pagan people, as it is a day of rebirth. Stonehenge was built as a monument to track the sun’s progress throughout the year. Each year, as has been done throughout history, Pagans travel to Stonehenge to watch the sunrise, and take advantage of the daylight on the shortest day of the year.
Many of the traditions we associate with Christmas are also derived from the ancient Solstice celebrations, including the Christmas tree. The ancient Celts and their priests – the Druids – used evergreen trees, along with mistletoe and holly, to symbolise eternal life during their Solstice rituals and celebrations.
However, unlike modern Christmas traditions, the Druids did not cut the trees down and place them in their homes; they would have seen this as a destruction of nature. It is believed that it was actually Saint Boniface who cut down the first evergreen tree after he came across a group of Pagans worshipping it in 8th Century Germany. Legend has it that after he chopped it down, a fir tree grew in its place, and the Pagans returned the following year to decorate it.
The Feast of Juul was observed in Scandinavia pre-Christianity, at the time of the Winter Solstice. To celebrate, people lit fires to symbolise the heat and light of the sun. A special Juul – or Yule – log was burned in the fire to honour Thor.
In Scandinavia, a piece of the log was traditionally kept for good luck, and then used as kindling for next year’s log. However, in England, Germany and other countries in Europe, the log was burned completely, and the ash was then scattered in the fields to be used as fertiliser, or otherwise used in medicines. This is of course, where the tradition of the burning the Yule Log at Christmas comes from.