The word solstice comes from the Latin sol (sun) and sistere (to stand still). On winter solstice, the sun stands still at the furthest point from the Northern Hemisphere. As seen from the Earth, the sun’s seasonal movement comes to a full stop at the solstice before reversing direction.
The changing of the days was observed by ancient civilizations from around the world. They may not have known the true reason why the sun stayed around longer in the summers, and went into hiding in the winters, but on the shortest day of the year, people spared no effort in celebrating the end of darkness and the beginning of light.
Winter Solstice Traditions and Rituals
Traditionally, the winter solstice is a major pagan festival. Rituals of rebirth have been celebrated for thousands of years, and people gather at Stonehenge to watch the sunrise on the shortest day.
Even the famous Christmas tree originated from celebrations of the winter solstice. Many ancient people believed winter came because the sun god was tired and weak. So they brought evergreens into the home as a reminder that green plants would grow again when the sun god is strong and that summer would return. Later on, as Christianity spread across Europe, the evergreens were absorbed into the new religion.
“This gave rise to an interesting play on words,” said Harry Yeide, a professor of religion at George Washington University. “In several languages, not just in English, people have traditionally compared the rebirth of the sun with the birth of the son of God.”
Coinciding nicely with the birth of Jesus Christ, winter solstice rituals of dinner feasts, gift-giving and decorative wreaths became what we know today as Christmas traditions. But really, they were for winter solstice. For instance, the mistletoe was a sacred plant called “All Heal” in the Celtic religion. Ancient people believed it could cure diseases, ensure fertility and protect against witchcraft. So the magical plant was hung from doorways or rooms to offer goodwill to visitors.
In China, the winter solstice is called Dong Zhi, the “arrival of winter.” It is an important day for the family to gather for a big feast. Based on the Chinese lunar calendar, the festival falls between December 21 and 23. Popular dishes include dumplings and tang yuan (glutinous rice balls).
Create Your Own Winter Solstice Tradition
In ancient times, winter solstice rituals are a celebration of the rebirth of the sun. You too can create your own tradition to welcome the new season of longer days and shorter nights. Make a wreath of evergreens as a reminder of the arrival of spring. Or build a circle of candlelight with your friends, then blow out the candles and sit in darkness for a while before lighting one large candle in the center to symbolize your unity in the next year.
Winter Solstice Must-See Facts
Winter solstice was widely celebrated around the world. The Egyptians celebrated the return of Ra, god of the sun. Ancient Greeks had a similar festival called Leanea. The Roman Empire had Saturnalia. Scandinavian Norsemen called the winter solstice Yule.
What is your home-made ritual for winter solstice? Skiing? Sledding? Playing with your dog?