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Celebrating The Winter Solstice

Celebrating The Winter Solstice
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BY STEVE NUBIE

The Winter Solstice occurs on December 21 this year. But how it’s been celebrated over Millennia may surprise you.

The Winter Solstice is the shortest day of the year in terms of daylight. Curiously, our Winter Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere is the opposite in the Southern Hemisphere. It’s summer on the Southside of the planet and for them it’s the Summer Solstice and their longest day of the year.

Regardless of the differences created by the orbit of the planet Earth around the sun, the Winter Solstice had significance for cultures around the world that has led to things like Yuletide, Christmas, Yalda Night and Saturnalia. If some of those events sound obscure to you, we’re just getting started.

On a fundamental level, ancient people actually celebrated the Winter Solstice as the beginning of new life as the days following became longer and longer. It wasn’t quite summer yet, but it was progress and that was the cause for celebration.

Stonehenge in Britain

Druids at Stonehenge marked the Winter Solstice carefully in their remarkable circle of monolithic rocks. People still gather at Stonehenge to see the sun rise in perfect orientation to the circle of stones.

The feast of Juul in Scandinavia

This was a pre-Christian celebration in Scandinavia that was observed on the day of the Winter Solstice. Fires surrounded the celebration to symbolize the light and heat of the returning sun. The English pronunciation of “Juul” is “Yule.” If that sounds familiar it was the obvious birth of Yuletide and a Yule log was often ceremoniously burned to honor the solstice and the Scandinavian god, Thor.

The Yuletide tradition carried across Europe to England, France, Germany and other European countries.

Saturnalia in Rome

The Romans were also excellent astronomers and recognized the occurrence of the winter solstice both scientifically and culturally. Their celebration was called Saturnalia and took place over 7 days starting on December 17twith the Solstice usually falling on or about the 4th day. Some records show this feast occurring as far back as 200 BCE.

Saturnalia was dedicated to the Roman god, Saturn who was believed to be the father of their gods.   A curious tradition was that all quarrels and wars were suspended for the 7 days. Masters served their slaves fruits and tended fires that were fairly common it seems. Sometimes a king was chosen from the group of slaves or criminals and he was allowed to do anything he pleased for the 7 days. Unfortunately, he was usually killed on the 8th day so I hope he had a good time.

Christmas

While Christmas is on the 25th of December it comes close as a celebration of the Winter Solstice. In fact, the Catholic Church in Rome deliberately moved the date to avoid any overlap with pagan celebrations, but the traditions of Yuletide and other non-Christian traditions still show up at Christmas from Yuletide wreaths that were often used as crowns at pagan celebrations to the Yuletide Christmas tree.

Alban Arthan 

There is an ancient belief system known as Wicca and Alban Arthan was their celebration of the Winter Solstice. Ancient believers saw this as a celebration of their Sun god and again it was about a celebration of days to come with more light. It was usually a 12-day celebration with much feasting and of course, large fires to not only celebrate the light to come but to keep warm in the cold winter weather.

Gody in Poland 

Gody was a non-Christian celebration that was dedicated to forgiveness and the sharing of food. It was celebrated on the day of the Solstice and children were often invited to deliver food to friends and neighbors.

Yalda Night in Iran 

Yalda night is a celebration of the Winter Solstice in Iran and it features a large family gathering at the house of the grandparents. It usually is a feast of food, drinks and poetry readings. Middle-Eastern fruits like pomegranates, nuts, dates and watermelons always are on the table.

Chaomos in Pakistan 

The Kalash Kafir people live in the northwestern corner of Pakistan. Over a period of 7 days they celebrate the Winter Solstice with dancing, a torchlit parade, singing, chanting, feasting and of course bonfires.

Big fires and big food were common

Fires showed up frequently at Winter Solstice celebrations particularly in temperate climate zones where winter weather made an outdoor or indoor celebration a chilly event. The big fires were not only welcome heat but were symbolic of the promise of longer days of daylight to come.

Big food also made its entrance for a number of reasons. Late fall and winter were prime hunting seasons in many parts of the world, and livestock were often slaughtered to avoid the challenge of feeding them over the winter. Just as important, many fermented drinks from beer to wine had finally reached their prime age of fermentation and were a major part of any solstice celebration.

It wasn’t usually a one-day event.

While some cultures usually celebrated the eve and the day of the Winter Solstice, for many cultures it was a celebration that took place either over 7 days or 12 days. This tradition actually seems a bit extended in the United States with Thanksgiving kicking off the holiday season leading up to either Christmas eve and Christmas day, or Chanukah. That makes the U.S. Winter Solstice celebration about a month-long event.

Give it a thought this December 21st 

You’re probably celebrating the holiday season in your own way, but maybe take the time to build a big fire in the fireplace on the 21st and enjoy a bit cut of meat and some wine or ale. It’s the ancient tradition that started long, long ago and it’s worth remembering, and celebrating.

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Steve Nubie
Steve Nubie has been writing professionally for 38 years. He is a published author with 10 books to his credit, has written for CBS Entertainment for the Twilight Zone series, and has written hundreds of articles for magazines and the Internet. He has served as Chief Creative officer in the marketing and advertising industry, was an Executive career-coach, is a chef and has traveled extensively living in Asia for two years, and London for two years.