What is the December solstice?
The December solstice is the moment when the sun is directly over the tropic of Capricorn. In the northern hemisphere, it is also known as the winter solstice. What are the phenomena accompanying this event? During the day, the shortest day and the longest night of the year occur simultaneously. This is when astronomical winter begins. According to popular belief, the days begin to grow longer and longer. What exactly does this mean?
From the winter solstice, the days are gradually getting longer and the nights are getting shorter until the summer solstice. Darkness is then defeated by light – both literally and in a metaphorical sense. According to many cultures, it is during the December solstice that good and life conquer night, evil and death. It is a magical time that has been celebrated in many ways over the millennia.
When does the December solstice occur?
The winter solstice falls on a time when two conditions are met – the sun should be on the tropic of Capricorn and positioned at the zenith. Its date is not fixed. Why? It depends on the length of the solar year and the occurrence of leap years. What remains the same is the fact that it always falls at the end of December.
At the beginning of our era, the December solstice was celebrated in the northern hemisphere on December 25 according to the Julian calendar. As you can guess, the date of Christmas was set for this important day for a reason. Nowadays, the shortest day and the longest night of the year usually take place around 21 and 22 December. In 2021 and 2022, they will fall in Europe on December 21, and on December 22 in 2023.
How was the December solstice celebrated?
Indo-European cultures, i.e. the cultures from various parts of the Northern Hemisphere, have celebrated the so-called rebirth of the sun on the day of the December solstice for millennia. This special day was celebrated by, among others, ancient Romans, Persians, Slavs, Germans, Celts, Vikings, and later Christians. What rituals and ceremonies accompanied that day?
From around the 7th century B.C. the ancient Romans celebrated Saturnalia in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture, wealth and freedom. It was a celebration of equality. From 17 to 23 December, slaves could enjoy freedom and swapped roles with their owners. There was no need to work then. Instead, joyful crowds made sacrifices to Saturn (e.g. piglet) and enjoyed marching in joyful processions and watching gladiatorial fights. The words “Io Saturnalia!” were also used as greetings.
Yalda festival, also known as Yalda Night or Yalda’s Eve, was typical of Persian culture. Today it is celebrated by the people of Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan and Armenia. It falls on the northern hemisphere’s winter solstice, symbolizing the end of fall and the beginning of the forty-day period of winter. The Persians believed that it was the day of birth of the sun god Mithra, but at the same time, the darkest night of the year would attract evil forces as well. So people gathered together keeping watch by the fire all night until sunrise.
Romans celebrated Sol Invictus from around the 3rd-4th century AD. It was the day of invincible sun and fell on December 25, the day of the winter solstice. It was a way to celebrate a new syncretic sun deity, Sol. This tradition referred to, among others, the cult of Middle Eastern gods, such as Mithra, El Gabala and Baal that was strong in other parts of the empire. When Christianity became popular among the Romans, the birth of Christ and Sol Invictus were celebrated together. The decision to establish Christmas on December 25 was made in 350 CE by Pope Julius I. Over time, the latter cult was superseded.
On the shortest day of the year, Early Slavs celebrated the Koliada, also known as Koleda. It symbolized the victory of the god associated with the cult of the sun, i.e. Svarog, over the darkness. Many of the rituals associated with the Koliada are still present in the Christmas tradition. These are, for instance, 12 Christmas Eve dishes, hay under the tablecloth or New Year fortune-telling. During the December solstice, the Early Slavs sang together, dressed up, rejoiced and gave each other gifts, just to name a few.
Germanics and Scandinavians observed Yule (Jul) for millenia. It was a celebration of the rebirth of the sun known as the winter holiday. It lasted from late December to early January. In Scandinavia, human sacrifices were initially made during Yule, and in later times the focus was mainly on feasting. Today, in, for instance, Denmark, Sweden and Norway the name “Jul” is used for Christmas Day. In other countries, many of the current Christmas traditions have their roots in the old beliefs of Germanic and Scandinavian cultures as well. They include hanging mistletoe, gift giving, and decorating the Christmas tree, to name just a few of them.