The winter solstice, also known as midwinter, is an astronomical phenomenon marking the day with the shortest period of daylight and the longest night of the year.

It occurs when one of the Earth’s poles has its maximum tilt away from the Sun.

It happens twice yearly, once in each hemisphere. In the Northern Hemisphere this is the December solstice and in the Southern Hemisphere, this is the June solstice.

The axial tilt of Earth and gyroscopic effects of its daily rotation mean that the two opposite points in the sky to which the Earth’s axis of rotation points (axial precession) change very slowly (at the current rate it would take just under 26,000 years to make a complete circle).

As the Earth follows its orbit around the Sun, the polar hemisphere that faced away from the Sun, experiencing winter, will, in half a year, face towards the Sun and experience summer.

This is because the two hemispheres face opposite directions along Earth’s axis, and so as one polar hemisphere experiences winter, the other experiences summer.

The solstice may have been a special moment of the annual cycle for some cultures even during Neolithic times.

Astronomical events were often used to guide activities such as the mating of animals, the sowing of crops and the monitoring of winter reserves of food.

Many cultural mythologies and traditions are derived from this. This is attested by physical remains in the layouts of late Neolithic and Bronze Age archaeological sites, such as Stonehenge in England and Newgrange in Ireland.

The primary axes of both of these monuments seem to have been carefully aligned on a sight-line pointing to the winter solstice sunrise (Newgrange) and the winter solstice sunset (Stonehenge).

It is significant that at Stonehenge the Great Trilithon was oriented outwards from the middle of the monument, i.e. its smooth flat face was turned towards the midwinter Sun.

The winter solstice was immensely important because the people were economically dependent on monitoring the progress of the seasons.

Starvation was common during the first months of the winter, January to April (northern hemisphere) or July to October (southern hemisphere), also known as “the famine months“.

In temperate climates, the midwinter festival was the last feast celebration, before deep winter began.

Most cattle were slaughtered so they would not have to be fed during the winter, so it was almost the only time of year when a plentiful supply of fresh meat was available.

The majority of wine and beer made during the year was finally fermented and ready for drinking at this time. The concentration of the observances was not always on the day commencing at midnight or at dawn, but at the beginning of the pagan day, which in many cultures fell on the previous eve.

Because the event was seen as the reversal of the Sun’s ebbing presence in the sky, concepts of the birth or rebirth of sun gods have been common and, in cultures which used cyclic calendars based on the winter solstice, the “year as reborn” was celebrated with reference to life-death-rebirth deities or “new beginnings” such as Hogmanay’s redding, a New Year cleaning tradition.

Also, “reversal” is yet another frequent theme, as in Saturnalia‘s slave and master reversals.

Iranian

Iranian people celebrate the night of the Northern Hemisphere’s winter solstice as, “Yalda night“, which known to be the “longest and darkest night of the year“.

In this night all the family gather together, usually at the house of the oldest, and celebrate it by eating, drinking and reading poems (esp. Hafez). Nuts, pomegranates, and watermelons are particularly served during this festival.

Pagan

The pagan Scandinavian and Germanic people of northern Europe celebrated a twelve-day “midwinter” (winter solstice) holiday called Yule.

Many modern Christmas traditions, such as the Christmas tree, the Christmas wreath, the Yule log, and others, are direct descendants of Yule customs. Scandinavians still call Yule “Jul“.

In English, the word “Yule” is often used in combination with the season “yuletide” a usage first recorded in 900. It is believed that the celebration of this day was a worship of these peculiar days, interpreted as the reawakening of nature. The Yule (Jul) particular god was Jólner, which is one of Odin‘s many names.

The concept of Yule occurs in a tribute poem to Harold Hårfager from about AD 900, where someone said “drinking Jul“. Julblot is the most solemn sacrifice feast.

At the “julblotet”, sacrifices were given to the gods to earn blessing on the forthcoming germinating crops. Julblotet was eventually integrated into the Christian Christmas.

As a reminder from this Viking era, the Midsummer is still important in Scandinavia, and hence vividly celebrated.

Roman cult of Sol

Sol Invictus (“The Unconquered Sun”) was originally a Syrian god who was later adopted as the chief god of the Roman Empire under Emperor Aurelian.

His holiday is traditionally celebrated on December 25, as are several gods associated with the winter solstice in many pagan traditions. It has been speculated to be the reason behind Christmas’ proximity to the solstice.

East Asian

In East Asia (except in the Philippines), the winter solstice has been celebrated as one of the Twenty-four Solar Terms, called Dongzhi in Chinese.

In Japan, in order not to catch a cold in the winter, there is a custom to soak oneself in the yuzu hot bath.

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*This article was originally published at en.wikipedia.org.