The Winter Solstice has been observed in most cultures since time began. It signaled the shortest day of the year. The growing season had stopped in the northern latitudes. Early people looked on winter as a time of dread. In ancient times, many people didn’t make it through the winter. They died or their loved ones died. They battled the elements, faced starvation, ran out of fuel, and were often ravaged by disease. Winter was deadly to early people. Even as late as last century, winter could spell destruction for people. Depending on where you live and your circumstances, winter can be deadly even in our modern culture.
Today we know that the solstice is caused by the tilt of the earth’s axis. For the unscientific, we say that solstice is the shortest day and the longest night of the year. The ancients celebrated. They knew something was up celestially. They knew that the days had been getting shorter since what we know think of as June 21. And they knew that now they had hard months ahead but that the days were going to get longer and there would be more sunlight.
Non-pagan peoples also have their roots in this seasonal event. Jews, Christians and Muslims all have festival days associated with the Winter Solstice. Hanukkah and Christmas nearly always occur around the same time. Perhaps early Christians used this time to convert pagans to Christianity. After all, they were celebrating hope.
It was critical to early man to renew. That fear that the sun might never reappear gave way to great joy near the Solstice that the sun would come back and life would begin anew. Meanwhile, the ancients prayed to their gods to make it happen.
The ancients underwent Herculean efforts to mark and observe the Solstices. Stonehenge, Maeshowe in Scotland and Newgrange in Ireland all align special light during the equinoxes and solstices. Each structure highlights an important aspect of astronomical light. The fairly new field of archaeo-astronomy has thousands of examples of ancient man observing these celestial turning points. North America has its own sites, the most famous being the Sun Dagger of Chaco Canyon, New Mexico.
Generally we think of solar and lunar architecture as being druid or celtic. However, there are examples all over the world and on every continent except Antarctica. In America many people incorporate the ancient symbols of the Winter Solstice in Christmas or Hanakah. Observers of pagan based religions practice the old ways.
While most cultures celebrated the Winter Solstice, one might ask, why celebrate? Good question. All sorts of superstitions and rituals were performed for good luck and to ward off bad things and evil that could happen. Of all early people, the Celts are probably the group many of us are most familiar with who celebrated Winter Solstice.
In Celtic myth, the Holly king and the Oak king, twins, were in a continual struggle for domination. At the Winter Solstice, the Holly King is overpowered and the Oak King rules until he is overthrown at the Summer Solstice. Winter Solstice is a time for celebration because it marks the beginning of the days getting longer. The cycle of the year is represented by this turmoil of continual struggle. Neither can exist without the other.
Many of our Christmas traditions include pagan ritual involving Winter Solstice. Yule logs, Christmas trees, Santa Claus, Mistletoe, the date of Christmas, holly, the colors red and green, wreaths, and ivy all have roots in pagan culture or in other religions. Religions do not just spring up in isolation. They merge and infuse and often take the old beliefs and remodel them into newer ones.
So regardless of your religion or culture, you are sure to find a fit somewhere in the winter holiday season around the Winter Solstice. Most of us are fortunate enough to be able to throw another log on the fire and sit back and let the winds howl outside.
Music Tributes under the fold
And for a good howling:
Paul Winter Consort 2008 Winter Solstice Concert Wolf Eyes
Somehow Winter Solstice seems like the perfect storm of blending science and religion. Is that what it is or is it simply an example of man trying to make sense out of his own existence and striving for his own immortality?