Today is a remarkable day – an astronomical phenomenon; today marks the shortest day and the longest night of the year in the northern hemisphere. Today, the sun’s daily maximum elevation in the sky is at its lowest which ranks the day as “midwinter.” Today is often considered the “extreme of winter” with more sunlight each day as the days lengthen and the nights shorten.
Although winter is the season of dormancy, darkness and cold, the December Solstice marks the turning of the Sun. Celebrations of the lighter days to come and nature’s continuing cycle have been common throughout cultures and history with feasts, festivals and holidays around the December solstice.
Christmas tree and church. Pic Cred: istockphoto.com/ingmar.wesemann
In modern times Christians all over the world celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ on Christmas Day, which falls on December 25th. However, it is believed that this date was chosen to offset pagan celebrations of Saturnalia and Natalis Invicti. Some believe that celebrating the birth of the “true light of the world” was set in synchronization with December solstice because from that point onward, the days began to have more daylight in the Northern Hemisphere.
December Solstice is important in Wiccan culture. Pic Creds: istockphoto.com/Nicolette.Neish.
Christmas is also referred to as Yule, which is derived from the Norse word Jol, referring to the pre-Christian winter solstice festival. Yule is also known as Alban Arthan and was one of the “Lesser Sabbats” of the Wiccan year in a time when ancient believers celebrated the rebirth of the Sun God and days with more light. This took place annually around the time of the December solstice and lasted for 12 days. The Lesser Sabbats fall on the solstices and equinoxes.
Saturnalia in Ancient Rome
In Ancient Rome the Winter Solstice festival Saturnalia began on December 17 and lasted for seven days.
Temple of Saturn in Rome, Italy. Pic Cred: bigstockphoto.com/jospfkubes
Saturnalia banquets were held from as far back as around 217 BCE. The festival was held to honour Saturn, the father of the gods and was characterized by the suspension of discipline and reversal of the usual order. Grudges and quarrels were forgotten while businesses, courts and schools were closed. Wars were interrupted or postponed and slaves were served by their masters. Masquerades often occurred during this time.
It was traditional to offer gifts of imitation fruit, (a symbol of fertility), dolls, (symbolic of the custom of human sacrifice) and candles (reminiscent of the bonfires traditionally associated with pagan solstice celebrations). A mock king was chosen, usually from a group of slaves or criminals, and although he was permitted to behave in an unrestrained manner for seven days of the festival, he was usually killed at the end. The Saturnalia eventually degenerated into a week-long spree of debauchery and crime – giving rise to the modern use of the term saturnalia, meaning a period of unrestrained license and revelry.
Feast of Juul
The Feast of Juul was a pre-Christian festival observed in Scandinavia at the time of the December solstice. Fires were lit to symbolize the heat, light and life-giving properties of the returning sun. A Yule or Juul log was brought in and burned on the hearth in honour of the Scandinavian god Thor.
A piece of the log was kept as both a token of good luck and as kindling for the following year’s log. In England, Germany, France and other European countries, the Yule log was burned until nothing but ash remained. The ashes were then collected and either strewn on the fields as fertilizer every night until Twelfth Night or kept as a charm and or as medicine.
Stormy sky in France. Pic Cred: bigstockphoto.com/Breev.Sergey
French peasants believed that if the ashes were kept under the bed, they would protect the house against thunder and lightning. The present-day custom of lighting a Yule log at Christmas is believed to have originated in the bonfires associated with the feast of Juul.