Christmas takes the marquee spot as the prime December holiday season, but just a few days before comes the often overlooked ancient Winter Solstice traditions. As a pagan holiday, winter solstice celebrations have existed for thousands of years, but does it still have modern resonance? Let’s explore.
History of the Winter Solstice
Scientifically, the solstice is the shortest day and longest night of the year in the northern hemisphere. It’s when the North Pole is at its furthest point from the sun all year. At this point the South Pole is tilted closest to the Sun, and the Sun’s rays are directly overhead at the Tropic of Capricorn (in the Southern Hemisphere the Seasons are reversed).
Afterwards, the sun “returns” and the days become longer again until the Summer solstice in June. As this has always been a naturally observable astrological phenomenon, traditions and celebrations around the day of the year have existed for nearly as long as humanity and culture itself. It was, and still is, believed to be a time of great energy as the seasons transition from the time of harvest to winter.
Archaeological evidence shows that ancient cultures in England and elsewhere held huge, midwinter feasts on the day of the winter solstice. One of the most famous structures in human history, Stonehenge, is believed to mark and celebrate the winter solstice. In Rome, they celebrated Saturnalia (in honor of the harvest god, Saturn), which is Christmas’ closest ancestor.
They used it as a celebration for the end of the planting season (which naturally lasts longer in Italy than Northern Europe). It was a days-long festival that included games and gift-giving—meaning the tradition of exchanging presents predates modern Christmas. China also has an end-of-harvest festival, Dong Zhi.
Elsewhere in the world, solstice celebrations were about purification and protection. Native American tribes like the Hopi engaged in cleansing rituals and dancing, as well as welcoming protective spirits called kachina. The Kachina resided with the tribe for half of the year, down from the mountains.
In Scandinavia, there are two important winter solstice holidays. The first is Yule; huge logs were brought back to villages and burned, and for as long as the log lasted, which could take many days, the people feasted.
We still have yule logs (though in a much smaller form) in our holiday traditions today. The second is St. Lucia’s day, wherein girls wear white dresses, red sashes, and wreaths of candles. St. Lucia is a symbol of light, and people light fires in her name to keep away the long night.
Modern Solstice Practices
Following Northern Europe pagan traditions, there are a lot of ways to integrate winter solstice celebrations into your modern traditions. Different from Christmas, which has its own religious meaning or can be embroiled with gift giving. A solstice celebration can be a time to bring intention to a time of tradition and make seasonal changes to your diet and skin care routine. Check out our post from earlier in the fall to see how to reset.
Surround yourself and your home with the traditional plants, which should be easy to find because they’ve already been integrated into our modern holidays—evergreen wreaths and boughs, mistletoe, holly, and ivy. Evergreen symbolizes eternal life and good health. Holly and Ivy represent protection and rebirth.
Lights and fire are another way to celebrate the winter solstice. As with St. Lucia’s day, it’s a symbol of resilience against darkness and embeds the house with determination and hope through the winter. Even electric-powered lights are a symbolic representation of letting light into your home this time of the year.
Of course, no solstice celebration could be complete without a feast! This is the most universal solstice tradition of all! The solstice is best celebrated with your community, be it family or just friends. Time your meal with the setting of the sun, which means you could be eating a late lunch more than dinner.
Try to create a menu that focuses on local and in-season foods, as at the end of the day, the solstice is a harvest celebration most of all. We’re sure no one will object to a taste of modern dark chocolate and pomegranates as a sweet touch at the end.