Winter Solstice Throughout The Ages
The Winter Solstice is when the sun is at its lowest position on the southern horizon and we have the shortest day of the year with the fewest hours of sunlight and the longest night. This is the point in the earth's orbit around the sun when we are the farthest away from our source of heat and light. Marking the mid-winter season; Winter Solstice falls on December 21st. The word solstice originates from the two ancient words “sol” which derives from the name of the sun god and “stice” which means still. So the winter solstice is a day in winter when the sun is perceived as still. In prehistoric times winter was very difficult for people in the northern latitudes. The growing season had ended and the tribes had to live off of stored foods and any animals they could catch.
Worldwide, interpretation of Winter Solstice has varied across cultures, but many have held a recognition of rebirth, involving holidays, festivals, gatherings, rituals or other celebrations around that time. Winter Solstice has been celebrated around the world by our ancestors for thousands of years. Many of the traditions associated with winter solstice are believed to have originated with the ancient Egyptians, Romans and Celtic civilizations. Throughout history humans have observed this seasonal milestone and acknowledged the rebirth of sunlight after the darkest period of the year. Many cultures the world over perform solstice ceremonies. At their root, an ancient fear that the failing light would never return unless humans intervened with anxious vigil or antic celebration. Most ancient cultures built tombs, temples, cairns (a celtic tomb) among others, to align with the solstices and equinoxes such as Stonehenge.
Approximately five thousand years ago, the ancient Egyptians celebrated the rebirth of the sun god Ra. As their culture and customs flourished and spread, other civilizations replicated honoring the sun as well. There was an underlying belief that things were good until the weather got colder and the crops began to die. By honoring the sun god this cycle of birth, death and then rebirth took place and the sun would return. The Egyptians used palm trees, which symbolized resurrection and rebirth and brought boughs of palm fronds and placed them inside their houses to honor the winter season.
In ancient Rome a weeklong winter festival called Saturnalia honored the sun god Saturn. Weeklong festivies involved sacrifices, gift giving, special privileges of slaves and excessive feasting. The holiday was about gift giving, but more importantly it's focus was to honor their sun god. Often the celebrants would decorate their homes with boughs of evergreens, vines and ivy. Holly wreaths were given as gifts and used to decorate public areas and their homes. The holly wreath was also a symbol of protection during the darkest time of the year. They also hung metal ornaments outside on trees. These ornaments typically represented Saturn, a god or the family’s patron deity.
In Celtic cultures the winter solstice was seen as a time of rebirth and renewal as signified by the return of the light. The ancient Celts would plant holly in their homes as a form of protection since they believed the plants had magical powers for its ability to survive the winter months. A log was lit to conquer the darkness, banish evil spirits and bring luck for the coming year. After the winter solstice the Celts would have reason to celebrate as they saw the sun rising and strengthening once more. The festivities brought their communities together to celebrate life with feasting, music, dance, and drama.
In Europe, Pagans did not cut down evergreen trees, bring them into their home and decorate them. They viewed that as destructive of nature. Instead they would cut boughs of evergreens, mistletoe, and holly branches and bring them into their homes. These cuttings would be decorated and displayed as symbols of the season. They were also thought to have great magic as they remained green through the winter months while other plants and trees died. Decorating a house with evergreens boughs has become universal throughout the world as a symbol of eternal life.
The winter solstice was immensely important because the people were economically dependent on the progress of the seasons. Starvation was common during the first months of the winter, January to April also known as "the famine months". In temperate climates, the midwinter festival was the last feast celebration, before deep winter began. One can understand why the winter solstice has been highly recognized throughout the ages. The ancient people had to depend on the seasons for survival and spent most of their lives outdoors. The weather and seasons had a tremendous influence on how they lived their lives. It stands to reason why they held respect and honored the sun for thousands of years.