WInter Solstice Celebrations Through Time

Winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere over Asia

The word solstice comes from the Latin word, solstitium, which means ‘Sun standing still’. The December solstice is the day on which the Sun is at its most southerly point, directly overhead at the Tropic of Capricorn, before it reverses its direction and gradually starts to move north again.  The image above shows the winter solstice in the Northen Hemisphere over Asia.  (Author: Jecowa at English Wikipedia. Creative Commons).

To people in the Northern Hemisphere the winter solstice means the longest night, with the latest dawn and shortest day of the year, with the sun at its lowest point in the sky. The day after the winter solstice marks the beginning of lengthening days, as we head towards the summer solstice on June 21st 2016.

For those in the Southern Hemisphere the opposite is true: people will experience the shortest night and the earliest dawn, with the longest day and the sun at its highest point in the sky.

The December solstice happens at the same time everywhere on Earth. This year it is on Tuesday, December 22nd (today!) at 04:49 GMT/Universal time. At Stonehenge, in Wiltshire, UK, the sun rose this morning at 08:04. The time is different every year, and can be between December 20th and 23rd, although it’s rarely on the two extremes.  The last time it was on December 23rd was in 1903, which will not happen again until 2303.

Interpretations of the winter solstice have varied worldwide and across cultures, but many have involved the recognition of  the rebirth of sunlight after the darkest time of year. As such, it has been celebrated with holidays, gatherings, festivals and rituals around that time. Many of these celebrations have been observed since the earliest times.

The prehistoric monument of Stonehenge in Wiltshire, UK (constructed  from 3000-2000 BC) is aligned on a sight-line that points to the winter solstice sunset . . . 

Sunrise between the stones at Stonehenge on the winter solstice. Author: Mark Grant. Creative Commons.

Sunrise between the stones at Stonehenge on the winter solstice. Author: Mark Grant. Creative Commons.

. . . in comparison to the Newgrange prehistoric monument in County Meath, Ireland, which points to the winter solstice sunrise:

Newgrange prehistoric monument, County Meath, Ireland. Author: Shira. Creative Commons

Newgrange prehistoric monument, County Meath, Ireland. Author: Shira. Creative Commons

Then there is the Goseck circle in Germany, which is aligned to both sunset and sunrise:

Neolithic site of the Goseck circle. The yellow lines are the direction the Sun rises and sets at winter solstice. Author: de:Benutzer:Rainer Zenz, Public Domain

Neolithic site of the Goseck circle. The yellow lines are the direction the Sun rises and sets at winter solstice. Author: de:Benutzer:Rainer Zenz, Public Domain

It is believed that the winter solstice was more important to the people who constructed Stonehenge than the summer solstice. The winter solstice was a time when cattle were slaughtered, so they would not have to be fed throughout the winter, and most of the wine and beer was finally fermented by then, and could be enjoyed.

In ancient Rome, the winter solstice was celebrated with a festival called Saturnalia. This began on December 17th and lasted for seven days. Saturnalian banquets were held as far back as 217 BCE to honour Saturn, the father of the gods. It began with  a sacrifice at the Temple of Saturn in the Roman forum, followed by a public banquet, a private gift giving and continuous partying!

The carnival overturned Roman social norms, being more like a free-for-all, when all discipline and orderly behaviour was ignored; colourful clothes replaced the formal togas. Wars were interrupted or postponed, gambling was permitted and slaves were served by their masters. All grudges and quarrels were forgotten (but were they suddenly remembered again afterwards, I ask?).

Dice players on a wall in Pompeii. Author: WolfgangRieger. Public Domain

Dice players on a wall in Pompeii. Author: WolfgangRieger. Public Domain

At the gift giving (December 19th) it was traditional to offer gifts of imitation fruit – a symbol of fertility. Dolls were given, which were symbolic of human sacrifice, and so were candles – a reminder of the bonfires associated with pagan solstice celebrations. The whole festival would become a week-long orgy of debauchery and crime:

Saturnalia sculpture by Ernesto Biondi: a bronze copy n the Botanical Gardens in Buenos Aires. (Original in the National Gallery of Modern art in Rome). Uploaded by Roberto Fiadone. Creative Commons

Saturnalia sculpture by Ernesto Biondi: a bronze copy n the Botanical Gardens in Buenos Aires. (Original in the National Gallery of Modern art in Rome). Uploaded by Roberto Fiadone. Creative Commons

In the Norse lands of pre-Christian Scandinavia, the winter solstice was celebrated with the feast of Jul (or jól), from which we get the terms Yule and Yuletide. Yule is what later evolved into today’s Christmas, though the Danes still call it Jul. The Danish Vikings sacrificed and offered up goods and animals to the gods in order to conquer the darkness of winter. Then they drank a toast for the year and for peace. The toast was very important and a beaker of beer was offered to the gods. Then the people would toast and drink and thank each other and the gods for the past year and welcome in the new.

People would light fires to symbolise the heat and light of the returning sun and a Jul /Yule log was brought in and dropped in the hearth as a tribute the god Thor. The Yule log was often an entire tree, carefully chosen and brought into the house with great ceremony and sometimes, the largest end of the log would be placed into the fire hearth, while the rest of the tree stuck out into the room.

shutterstock_739285

Image from Shutterstock

I wrote a short post about the Yule log last December, with a brief paragraph from Shadow of the Raven describing the Yule celebrations. It can be found here.

The log would be lit from the remains of the previous year’s log which had been stored away and, later on, in Christian times, was often fed into the fire through the Twelve Days of Christmas. The log was burned until nothing but ash remained, then the ashes were collected and either strewn on the fields as fertiliser every night until Twelfth Night or kept as a charm and or as medicine. A piece of the log was kept as both a token of good luck and as kindling for the following year’s log.

These are just three of the ways in which peoples of the past celebrated the winter solstice. There are many others from different times and cultures, but I can’t do them all. There’s only a couple of hours left of December 22nd, 2015, here in the UK, so the shortest day has almost been and gone . . .

All I can say is that it was incredibly short!

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About milliethom

I am a reader and writer of historical fiction with a keen interest in the Earth's history and all it involves, both physically and socially. I like nothing better than to be outdoors, especially in faraway places, and baking is something I do when my eyes need respite from my computer screen.
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73 Responses to WInter Solstice Celebrations Through Time

  1. So interesting Milie, your posts are always fascinating. Dec. 22nd is almost over here in the US, our shortest day didn’t feel short at all. Hope your Holiday is wonderful and wishing you and yours a fabulous 2016.

  2. Lina says:

    I had time only to go through the first half! I remember learning those stuff in 10th grade☺ Really interesting as always! I’ll come back from college nd read the rest☺

    • milliethom says:

      Thanks Lina. It is quite a long post. I really just wanted to write about the different ways of celebrating the solstice, but decided I ought to explain a little about what the winter solstice actually involves first. That’s what made it long. Hope college is going well. 🙂

  3. inesephoto says:

    It is amazing how we can feel the shortness of the day! A couple of minutes make such a difference. Love this day! Thank you for this great blog.

  4. This is the day my husband Andy starts saying, “The days are getting longer” – until June.

    • milliethom says:

      My husband keeps saying the same thing, but only to wind me up. He knows how much I hate the dark evenings. We lose so many hours of daylight in the winter. Night effectively starts at 4pm – far too early. Roll on spring. 🙂

  5. Ann Koplow says:

    As usual, an incredibly informative post!

  6. Last night was the shortest night here. Due to rain and cloudy weather it did not feel that long. Still it was a bit of light till 9:30pm when I took Trompie for his late outing before bedtime.

    • milliethom says:

      We find that when it’s cloudy and rainy here in winter, it goes dark so much earlier. It’s bad enough when it goes dark at 4 o’ clock, without it being half an hour earlier. I hate it going dark so early. Getting out for a walk at 9.30pm sounds wonderful right now.
      Have a lovely Christmas, Ineke. I’ll read some posts tomorrow, when I have some spare time. ❤

  7. It is funny how people of the Northern Hemisphere often obsess about the winter solstice because it is a day after which the days become longer. I hear this all the time from my friends in Norway. So it comes as little surprise that the peoples of the past placed great importance on the occasion. Your post is so interesting and I’ve not heard about the gosek circle. What was the third opening in the circle for? I assume for the summer solstice? As for us, I am happy that our days become shorter if that means they become cooler……

    • milliethom says:

      Thank you, Amanda. I suppose we obsess about it because the day length is so short at the moment. It’s horrible when it gets dark before 4 o’ clock in the afternoon. It’s night time already – unlike in summer, when its daylight until 10 pm, or later. Daylight gives me that feel goood factor, and long, dark evenings are just depressing! I don’t know why I’m moaning. People further north in Scandinavia have far less dayight.
      As far as I know, the north-facing entrance to the Gosek Circle is purely another entrance, but I’ll look it up.
      I can understand how you might be wanting cooler weather. I don’t like to be too hot, either.

      • I understand that the long dark winters can be depressing and you lack a little Vitamin D towards the end, well, at least the Norwegians I know, tell me that. But you must trade that off with the wonderful long, and sometimes balmy nights you have in summer. They are so very special and although we have slightly more daylight than you in summer, ( it gets dark at 5pm here in the middle of winter) and winter is remarkably short, it is not quite the same on the flip side, ie. during summer. Down in Tasmania and Melbourne they do have a twilight and Daylight saving time so it can be light up til 9pm, and rather oddly, the hottest time of the day seems to be around 4pm. The banana – benders, (that is what they call Queenslanders, in the north), refuse to entertain daylight savings hours saying it is too hot when the kids are walking home from school!!! So we are stuck with the earth’s model during summer!! Darkness comes by 7-7.15pm then. We had a trial of DST here some years back and it was amazing how many people were out walking after dinner or in the garden at 8pm. A much healthier lifestyle than when it is dark, one retreats indoors!!

      • milliethom says:

        Love the name banana-benders – how appropriate. Do Queenslanders take offence at that?
        Yes, the twilights are what I love most about our summers. It is so lovely to be able to walk, or just sit outdoors until so late. I just find the dark evenings depressing and need to be outdoors a lot during the day to compensate. I never feel as fit and healthy in the winter, but I refuse to let myself pile on the pounds. I’d feel even worse then.
        Are you in Melbourne? I’ve often wondered which area of Australia you live in. (Don’t answer if you think I should mind my own business. I know I’m nosy.)

      • Millie, you are so sweet, so English the way you excuse yourself for asking a question. It is quite alright to ask. I am in Queensland but was born in Melbourne. Melbourne is my favourite city but all my close family is up here in the sub tropical North. Each state has a slang term for defining their origins Queenslanders are banana benders and South australia are crow eaters and so on. In the scheme of things, banana benders is not so bad and noone would find it offensive. The state grows loads of bananas that thrive in the tropical climate, you see.

      • milliethom says:

        I love the term ‘banana benders’. It’s so fitting for Queensland.
        We didn’t go further north than the Gold Coast, but we learned a lot about the state. It’s so hot up there, and we were there in early November – still your spring time.

      • November is not too bad as far as summer goes. It really ramps up in December. I really think the only thing that can resemble Spring here is a few weeks in August/September. ..

      • milliethom says:

        Ah, well that explains why it was hot (to us it was very hot!). I suppose you all just take it in your stride, but we’re just not used to anything like that kind of heat. There were already forest fires around, and big storms that were brilliant. I hope your are coping with high summer and managing to keep cool. Enjoy the rest of Boxing Day, Amanda.

  8. draliman says:

    I prefer my Yule log made of chocolate-covered cake 🙂 Great post!

    • milliethom says:

      Yeah… chocky logs are so much easier to eat than the wooden variety. Much tastier. too. It’s traditional (so Louise insists!) to eat them on the winter solstice. But I’m afraid mine will get made on Christmas Eve (during the daytime, that is). Have a great Christmas, Ali. I’ll catch up with a few posts I’ve missed inbetween baking mince pies and a Yule log – and wrapping prezzies – tomorrow. 🙂

  9. Susan Holmes says:

    Another excellent post, and a wonderful way to wake up my imagination before I spend the day writing. I’ve shared the link on my Facebook page and took the liberty of including a link to your Amazon sales page. You’re the sort of writing that makes history come alive–thanks and a Merry Solstice to you!

    • Susan Holmes says:

      Gads….make that “You’re the sort of writer” not “You’re the sort of writing.” Need more tea before my fingers and brain connect!

    • milliethom says:

      Thank you for doing all that, Susan! I very much appreciate you linking to both my post and my Amazon page. And while we’re on the subject of books, I still owe you a review. I finished your first book a while ago now, and still need to get the review on Amazon and Goodreads. I really enjoyed the book! I’ve just started to write up several reviews I’m behind with, and I intend to get them all done as soon as I start my ‘blogging break’ in January – so not long now. I would also like to read your second book, which I believe has been published now.
      Merry Solstice to you, too (just try to lay off all that fermented ale – it gives you shocking hangovers!) 🙂

      • Susan Holmes says:

        Milliethom, thank you so much for your kind words about my book. And you owe me nothing–knowing you enjoyed it is a gift to me.

        I’m chagrined to report #2 is still in endless-draft form. I’m on break from teaching for the next two weeks and am determined to use the time to nudge the manuscript closer to book form. I hope you’re able to work on your own book in January. Loved the first two and REALLY looking forward to your next!

      • milliethom says:

        Hello again, Susan. I’m afraid Christmas somehow got in the way of me replying, so please accept my apologies for this late one. I’ve had all the family here for days. Chaos reigns! As for the review, I certainly do owe you one. I said I’d do one, and so far I’ve been very remiss on that. As soon as New Year’s Day is behind us, I’ll be buckling down to catch up with all things outside of WordPress. Thank you for your wonderful praise about my books. I think, as authors, we all desperately need feedback.And, also as authors, It’s good to support each other. My sin this year has been in becoming too engrossed in my blog. I’m still learning the ropes in all this socail media, so I hope you’ll understand.
        Thank you so much for following me on Twitter – and the great mention of Shadow. I’ve only just got round to starting that up – and yes, I’m fumbling my way along.
        I didn’t realise you were still teaching. It must be very hard to write as well. I didn’t do so until I retired, although I suppose I’ve no excuse for not doing during the holidays. I’ll wish you a very Happy New Year now, Susan, although I’m sure well talk again before too long.

  10. Love reading your posts, Millie! I’d never heard of the Goseck Circle in Germany… always happy to learn something new. My family and I were in Ireland this past summer and went to Newgrange in Co. Meath. They hold a lottery each year to determine who will be allowed in the chamber during the Winter Solstice to observe the light entering the tunnel. Through the “magic” of modern science, those who are not lottery winners or visit at other times of the year, are able to witness a simulation of the Winter Solstice light. Though powered by electricity, it was still beautiful and a testament to the ancient peoples’ sense of engineering and astronomy. Absolutely amazing!

    • milliethom says:

      How strange that you should have been to Newgrange! I haven’t been myself, and what you say about it and the ‘magic’ of modern science makes me want to. You obviously enjoyed it, so it must be worth a visit. The idea of the lottery is intriguing. Thank you for sharing this, Jean.

  11. DG MARYOGA says:

    Although it’s almost Christmas,I didn’t want to miss your post which I saw last night … (actually day) … And I ,like a night owl again,was replying to comments and to likes.
    We all know what happens in Winter Solstice “Up or Down Under”,but the way you have organised the info makes it the perfect Winter Solstice post!You have so brilliantly connected facts and photos and you added all these descriptions of the ancient ritualistic celebrations which display History and Culture.Your work is exceptional and very methodically written,dear Millie,it gives such a great pleasure to read.Thoreau used to say that good prose is poetry.
    It was a major holiday in ancient Greece too.It all started with the beginning of the Festival for Poseidon,which coincided with the Winter Solstice.It’s sad though that nowadays lots of people ignore so many lovely details.An English friend of mine, from Ireland,used to celebrate the holiday at Stonehenge in order to see the early dawn light on the Huge Sacred Stones.I’d better sign off before Christmas arrives.My best wishes to you and yours for a beautiful Christmas 🙂 xxx

    • milliethom says:

      Thank you for telling me about the festival in Ancient Greece, Doda. I didn’t know about that one. There are so many stories about Poseidon – I’ve read a few of them on Aquileana’s site. One of my daughters studied Ancient Greece at uni, as part of her Classics degree, and her enthusiasm rubbed off on me, though I’ve never studied it to any depth.
      I’d love to get down to Stonehenge sometime, too, and so would my two daughters.There are many ancient sites dedicated to each of the solstices, and it would be wonderful to see a few more. I’ve been to Stonehenge but not at the time of a solstice.
      I hope your Christmas was a joy, and I’ll take this opportunity to wish you a very wondeful New Year. ❤

  12. Hi Millie! another wonderful post as always so full of information! Sorry i have not been around seeing you, mom and dad came and have been busy as I am sure you have been!

    • milliethom says:

      I have so many posts to catch up on, Lynn. It’s almost impossible for me to get onto my blog over Christmas – or even the week before. There are always people here, which I love, but it means everything else is on hold. I’m sure you’ll know only too well, what I mean, Lynn, and family must come first. I hope to play catch up over the next day or two.

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  14. So glad we have been friends for so long! thanks for supporting me and always caring! http://lynzrealcooking.com/2015/12/27/teacher-millie/

  15. cynthiamvoss says:

    There’s so much interesting historical info here, thanks for sharing!

  16. Wow ! Such a fascinating post Millie ! It was great to read about the different ways winter solstice is celebrated. Season’ greetings 🙂

  17. Hi, Millie, I’ve been to the Stonehenge and Newgrange monuments but was not aware of others. Thanks for the history of how the winter solstice is celebrated. I love learning history and geography this way. You enrich my life! Clare

    • milliethom says:

      Thanks, Clare. I’m on the rounds at the moment, playing catch up on posts I’ve missed over Christmas. I’ve had family here for so long, it’s beginning to feel like a Guest House! Hope you had a wonderful Christmas. I’ll be over to check out posts as soon as I can. 🙂

      • Hi, Millie. I’m looking forward to a slower January where I can do a little catching up, too. I really loved your post on the Winter Solstice and can’t wait to continue my visit to your blog very soon. Love, Clare

      • milliethom says:

        Thanks, Clare. I intended to visit people’s blogs today, but we had unexpected visitors… Just when I thought I’d have a day to myself. Ah well, that’s Christmas, I suppose. I need to do a post soon, too. 🙂

      • Millie, all of your posts are so interesting and I am taking time to read as many as possible. So, all of them are new to me. Thanks, Clare

      • milliethom says:

        Thanks, Clare. It’s midday on New Year’s Eve as I write this, so I’ll wish you a wonerful and productive New Year. I’m about to head into the kitchen to prepare lots of food for family visits tonight. It’s a scary but fantastic thought that it’s almost 2016. I think we need to look forward, positively, and not bemoan the passing of another year, which I used to do, for years – all to do with getting older! Now I accept it, and enjoy life every day. Hope you do, too. Hugs to you… we’ll talk again when I pop over to catch up on your posts. 🙂

      • Millie, I know we will all have much fun sharing in each other’s adventures in the coming year. I have never really minded getting older because the alternative was not that appealing to me. Hugs, to you, too. Clare

  18. Thank you for such an interesting post! 🙂
    I was just happy that days are getting longer and longer, but you also made a lovely story about it!

    • milliethom says:

      Thank you, Rockhopper! Like you, I’m happy to know the days are now getting longer. The short, dark days don’t agree with me one bit! 😀

      • I like to get up early, and it’s kind of depressing when at 7 or 8 am is still dark…

      • milliethom says:

        I totally agree! When I was still teaching (before I retired) I used to leave home at 7.15 to drive to school in the dark and drive home in the dark in the evening. I really hated missing all the daylight, as well as working under electric lighting all day. It’s very depressing! Now I get outside and walk a lot, even when it’s cold, or raining. 🙂

  19. irinadim says:

    Fascinating post, Millie, as usual. After almost a month of absence I finally have some time for WordPress. And your posts never disappoint. I’m glad the nights are now getting longer in Sydney and soon the sun will not wake me up too early. 🙂 Hope you had a lovely Christmas and I wish you and your family a very happy New Year. Cheers 🙂 Irina

    • milliethom says:

      Thank you, Irina, We’re all wanting the longer days to come over here. The winter days are so short. On cloudy days, it’s almost dark by 3.30 in the afternoon. I hate to think what it’s like in northern Scandinavia…no daylight at all for so long. It’s funny how we can complain about conditions at any time of the year. We’re never satisfied, are we?
      Happy New Year to you both! 🙂

      • irinadim says:

        Millie, Sydney’s climate is so wonderful. Even when it’s hot, it’s not hot for too long, a day or two perhaps, then cooler for a few days. And winters are like spring! I shouldn’t complain, you’re right. 🙂

      • milliethom says:

        It’s really wet and miserable here – but the holiday atmosphere takes us well beyond that. It will be 2016 in the UK in 50 minutes as I write this, and I’m really looking forward to it!

  20. I know many countries celebrate winter solstice, but never knew much about its background. This post is very interesting and made me wanna go find a historical book about winter solstice 😉 Hope your Christmas was an amazing one Millie! 🙂 Wish this New Year brings to you newly found happiness, prosperity, joy and everything else you want! Happy 2016! ❤ ❤ ❤

    • milliethom says:

      Hi, Khloe. Thank you for liking my post! The solstice celebrations worldwide are fascinating, and I’d already done a lot of research about the Viking ones for my books. 🙂
      I’ve kept popping over to your site to see if you’ve posted, but I’ve already read and enjoyed your last post on Porto. So I’ll wait patiently for your next one. I can only wish you the happirst New Year ever and say that I’ve loved chatting to you over the past year. According to my Annual Review from WordPress,it seems that you are my top commenter too! How amazing is that? So thank you so much for all the support you have given my blog. Believe me, it’s much appreciated. 😀

      • You’re most welcome Millie, 🙂 I love post like this. ❤ haha yea I can't post as often as before because of my hectic work so that's why you couldn't see any update when you checked my blog. I posted one on New Year's Eve.

        Thank you for being patient and your lovely wishes sweetie! :)I love chatting with you as well, but just wish I could chat with you as often as before. I'm surprised to know I'm actually one of your top commenters . It made me super happy. 😉 Honestly, you don't have to thank me. You totally deserve it. Your posts are always fascinating and I learnt a lot from you WOW series as well. Thank you very mcuh Millie! 🙂 Have a great week! ❤

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  22. spearfruit says:

    Millie, great post – I enjoy reading posts with historical information. Thanks for following my blog and Happy New Year! 🙂

  23. Millie, I must admit I’m not a fan of winter, and the short, dark days. I feel much better with the sunshine, and the summer solstice reminds of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Nights Dream. I wanted to let you know that I nominated you for Sisterhood of the World Blogging Award on my post. You don’t have to take up the gauntlet if you don’t want to (they are time consuming), but I just wanted to let you know that I mentioned your site on my blog. Happy new year! I hope you are doing well 🙂

    • milliethom says:

      Thank you, L.T. I’ve just been over to your blog and accepted. Some great posts to catch up on while I was there, too! Happy New Year to you. I hope 2016 is a really good one for you – and your writing. 🙂

  24. milliethom says:

    Reblogged this on Millie Thom and commented:

    Last year on this very date, I wrote a post about the winter/hibernal solstice and how people have celebrated it through the ages. As the basics of that haven’t changed, I’ve decided to reblog the post for anyone interested to glance at.
    The solstice happens at the same moment for everyone worldwide. It occurs when the sun reaches its most southerly point away from the sun (23.5 degrees: over the Tropic of Capricorn). Naturally this makes climatic conditions in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres very different at that time and the celebrations vary accordingly.
    This year, 2017, the winter solstice occurs on Wednesday, December 21 at 10.44 GMT. As I write this, the time here in the UK is exactly that! This means that at ancient sites like Stonehenge, as well as many other venues worldwide, people will be gathering on Wednesday evening/night to wait for the sunrise the following morning. Having visited Stonehenge for the first time in early May, and written a post about the site, I can understand the enormity of its appeal as a venue for both the winter and summer solstices. It’s simply mystical and awe-inspiring.
    I won’t say anything else or I’ll be duplicating what’s in the post. So here it is…

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