The Sun Stands Still: the Winter Solstice and other Midwinter Festivals

The original version of this was posted on my old blog in December 2008, as part of my Advent Calender series. It is reprinted here with a few minor tweaks and edits.

Today is the shortest day of the year. As I write this, it is just gone three in the afternoon and there is already a hint of dusk about the sky. Within an hour or so, night will have fallen, and the Christmas celebrations will soon be one day nearer. But today is a celebration too – an ancient midwinter festival that has been celebrated in Britain for millennia, long before Christianity (or even the Romans) arrived on these isles. Today is also the Winter Solstice.

The word ‘solstice’ comes from the Latin sol (sun) and sistere (to stand still), which expresses the idea perfectly as the sun appears not to move on the horizon. In astronomical terms, the Solstice marks the shortest day – that is, when the sun is at its lowest arc in the sky because the tilt of the earth has moved our hemisphere furthest away from the warmth and power of the sun. This is the last day before the winter nights begin to shorten and the hours of daylight start to increase again.

To us modern folk, the reversal of the shortest day means little more than mild relief that we won’t have to get up in the dark of the morning for very much longer, but to our ancient ancestors it was far, far more important than that. Prior to everyone owning diaries and calendars which neatly divide the months and seasons by date, astronomical events, such as the movement of the sun across the sky and the phases of the moon at different times of the year guided the existence of our ancestors, controlling when they sowed their seeds or took their animals to be mated, for example. The sun, in particular, was very important to this process, which (partially) explains why the Solstice has long been celebrated as its return and rebirth.

The Solstice is seen by some groups as the beginning of Yule, one of the midwinter festivals I have mentioned before as precursors to Christmas. In fact, Yule is probably one of the oldest midwinter festivals in the world. The word ‘Yule’ has a mysterious etymology. It may have its roots in the Old Norse word Jol (the meaning of which can be seen in that it also provides the origins for the English word ‘jolly’), which in turn may derive from the word hjol (meaning ‘wheel’).

It seems that many of the Norse and Germanic tribes of pre-Christian Europe saw the year as a wheel, turning with the changing seasons. Midwinter would see the wheel at the lowest point of its yearly revolution, and the Solstice was the moment that the wheel began to rise again through the darkness of winter towards the possibility of another spring.

Yule was thus a celebration of light and new birth, and was celebrated with toasts and bonfires and stories. Evergreens, which represented eternal life, were brought in to decorate the house (mistletoe was particularly sacred to the Druids of ancient Britain; they saw the berries as representing life even in the depths of winter), and a Yule log would be burned to banish any evil spirits that might be lurking in the winter darkness – two Yule traditions that survive to this day (see previous blogs for more on this).

Yule wasn’t the only important midwinter festival whose influence still echoes down the centuries. At least two Roman festivals have also had an impact on the traditions of our modern Christmas. The first was Saturnalia, the riotous public festival of reversals dedicated to Saturn, the god of agriculture and harvest. This was celebrated around the period of 17th-23rd December, and involved the traditional sacrifices to the gods, exchanging small gifts, much partying and the reversal of roles between slaves and masters (ideas that lingered into the Medieval Twelfth Night customs).

Some of these Saturnalia customs were later shifted to the Roman festival Dies Natalis Solis Invicti (‘the birthday of the unconquered sun’), which was celebrated on 25th December (the Winter Solstice according to the old Julian Calendar), and was dedicated to Sol Invictus, the Roman state-sanctioned sun god – forming the basis of a similar belief to that of the Germanic pagan Yule celebrations.

The cult of Sol Invictus was particularly popular with the Roman army, as was the cult of another sun god whose birthday, by some accounts, just so happened to be celebrated on 25th December, and whose story bears some uncanny similarities to that of Jesus – Mithras, a Persian sun god. By the 4th century AD, the then pope had decreed that Christmas should be celebrated on December 25th to make it easier for the many pagan Romans who still celebrated that date as marking the (re)birth of Sol Invictus or Mithras to adapt to the new Christian customs.

Many of the traditions (as well as the date – which varies depending on the calendar used) associated with such pagan festivals as Yule and the Roman Saturnalia were ‘Christianised’ by the early church, then interpolated into the Christmas celebrations. The very fact that the word ‘Yule’ is now used as virtually interchangeable with the word ‘Christmas’ is but one indication of how closely these pre-Christian and Christian practices have become interlinked.

The themes of light and rebirth (amongst others), so familiar from these pagan Solstice festivals, went on to form a central part of the Christian celebrations, and the practice of gift-giving at this time of the year dates back at least to the Roman midwinter festivals. So, in the end, the Solstice and its associated celebrations are much older than Christmas – in fact, it is almost as ancient as mankind itself.

Happy Solstice to you all!

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7 comments

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