The Winter Solstice
I don’t like Christmas very much (I’m a mean one, I guess), but I certainly have learned to dig the winter solstice.
While plenty of good folks are campaigning to “keep the Christ in Christmas,” a pursuit I happen to think is actually a worthy one on its own terms, it seems that not as many realize that, long before anyone had ever heard of Jesus Christ, the astronomical/-logical event known as the winter solstice already played a starring role in human civilization. Were this not the case, Christians might very likely celebrate the birth of their savior in March, May, or just whenever.
So Jesus isn’t the only reason for the season. Far from it. Give me that, and we’ll be okay forever and ever.
What is the winter solstice?
The winter solstice can be defined celestially as the point at which the Sun appears at the greatest distance on the other side of the equatorial plane from the observer. In the northern hemisphere, it is the instant at which the sun could be said to ‘stand still’ (Lat. sol “Sun” + sistere “to be still”) at its southernmost point in the sky before beginning the return track northward towards summer. This happens sometime between December 20-23 in the northern hemisphere, and between June 20-23 in the southern hemisphere. Reverse those dates, and you have the dates of the opposite phenomenon, the summer solstice, for each hemisphere.
The cause of the solstices is that, at the instant of solstice, one hemisphere of the Earth is at its maximum tilt away from the Sun. This is why the day of the winter solstice is the shortest, in terms of daylight, of all the days of the year (again, from the perspective of those in the North—it naturally marks the longest day in the South).
Why is it culturally significant?
Because people didn’t always have supermarkets and refrigerators. These are, in fact, extremely recent developments!
In the cultures of the northern hemisphere, the winter solstice marks the onset of ‘deep winter.’ In primitive societies, particularly hunter-gatherer and early agrarian societies which had not yet developed means of harvesting and storing surplus food, it was not always a given that a community would survive through the winter. Cattle were slaughtered at about the time of the solstice so that they would not have to be fed through the winter, creating a temporary supply of fresh meat—this is why we associate winter holidays such as Thanksgiving and Christmas with feasting.
Aside from such practical concerns, the winter solstice was ceremonially important as an astrological event of spiritual/ritual significance. On the night of the solstice, the stars of Orion’s belt form a line with Sirius, the ‘Dog Star,’ which points to the exact spot where the Sun will rise the following morning. This fact was well-known to the skywatching ancients; important Celtic religious sites such as Stonehenge and New Grange are obviously aligned with the solstice sunrise or sunset, and we see similar reverence for the solstice in even completely unrelated cultures, such as those of neolithic Mesoamerica.
Symbolically, because the winter solstice marks the point at which the Sun reverses course and begins to climb back toward its summer posture, it was associated with the concept of spiritual renewal and with the birth dates of certain Sun deities, such as the Roman god Sol and the Persian god Mithras. According to many scholars, this is both why the birth of Jesus, the son (read: “Sun”) of God, is celebrated near the winter solstice, and why the Western New Year falls just behind it.
The winter solstice is culturally significant in and of itself even today because of the effects of deep winter on the minds and lifestyles of people in the more extreme latitudes. Winter is a dark, cold time in which people tend to spend more time indoors, are generally somewhat more sedate, and can sometimes even suffer seasonal depression—although it should be noted that many others claim the winter months as their favorite time of year (most of them own ski passes, no doubt). Having a celebration of feasting and communal fellowship to look forward to is a nice way to add spark and charm to a bleak season.
What is the relationship of the winter solstice to Christmas?
December 25 was the date of the winter solstice on the old Julian calendar; this date was known as Dies natalis Sol invictus (“Birthday of the Unconquered Sun”) in Rome, and conveniently allowed people in various parts of the Roman Empire to celebrate the birth of their sundry Sun deities together. In Rome itself, the solstice marked approximately the end of the festival of Saturnalia, during which masters and slaves swapped roles for a time, there was much feasting and licentious merry-making, and the giving of gifts and alms was encouraged. Aside from the obvious similarities between the “Birthday of the Unconquered Sun” and the “Birthday of the Unconquered Son,” meaning Christ, the Christian celebration of the Nativity very likely inherited the tradition of “merry” gift-giving from Saturnalia.
We know that, as late as the 3rd Century A.D., at least some Coptic Christians in Egypt celebrated the Nativity in May. The earliest known reference to a Nativity feast corresponding to the winter solstice comes from an illuminated Roman manuscript dated from 354 A.D., although, at least through the early Middle Ages, the celebration of the Nativity in and of itself was not usually distinguished from the early January celebration of the Epiphany.
Many of the traditions of Christmas were undoubtedly incorporated through the assimilation of other cultures into the Roman Empire. We have already mentioned that Saturnalia likely passed certain traditions into the Christmas holiday; the Germanic winter solstice festival of Jul (Yule), marked by feasting, decorating with greenery and candlelight, visits from a gift-giving demigod, and the burning of the infamous Yule Log, made a particularly strong imprint on Christmas traditions both because the Germans were the last major culture in the Empire to be christianized, and because Christmas as a holiday first became popular in Western and Northern Europe at approximately the time of Charlemagne, who was crowned on Christmas Day of 800 A.D.
It was not until about this time that Christmas became the major Christian observance of the Nativity, and this was a development that was later challenged throughout Christianity. Early American Puritans particularly disapproved of Christmas, and ever since, there have been religious movements, especially in North America, which have sought to disentangle Christmas from its primarily non-Christian origins and heritage.
What are some other winter solstice celebrations around the world?
A small sampling:
- Wayeb (Maya) – the five unnamed days completing the end of the Maya solar calendar, thought to be an ominous and unlucky time in which divisions between the mortal and immortal worlds were partially broken. People often avoided leaving their houses during this period.
- Amaterasu (Japan) – in ancient Japan, the winter solstice was celebrated as the reemergence of Amaterasu, the sun goddess, from her hibernation in a cave. The celebrations were marked by observances for the dead and theatrical performances, among other events.
- Yalda (Persia) – dating from as long ago as the 2nd millennium BCE, this Persian festival originally marked the birth of the Sun-god Mithras. It is roughly synonymous with the modern Shabe Celle, associated with socializing and feasting on nuts and dried fruits.
- Şeva Zistanê (Kurdish) – this winter solstice observance dates to ancient times and is marked by feasting and the giving of sweets to children, similar in nature to Halloween in America.
- Beiwe (Saami) – the Saami, the indigenous people of northern Scandinavia, have worshipped this goddess of the Sun and of fertility since antiquity. On the night of the winter solstice, many Saami would sacrifice white female animals and paint their doorways with butter for Beiwe to eat, nourishing her for her return from the solstice to the heights of the summer skies.
- The Jewish holiday of Chanukah is not specifically related to the winter solstice, although it roughly coincides with it. However, because Chanukah is a celebration of the rededication of a holy temple (similar to Saturnalia), it may be associated de facto with the more ancient traditions of the midwinter feast.
I hope to have amply shown than, while Jesus may be the reason for Christmas proper, He is not the only reason for our celebrations of the winter solstice. The winter solstice is of a deep, broad, and ancient significance which touches on biology, ecology, psychology, sociology, astronomy—practically all aspects of human existence—and has been interpreted in many ways by many cultures.
So, by all means, put the Christ back in Christmas. Just remember that ‘Happy Holidays’ is far more warm, welcoming, and inclusive.