Winter Solstice – History and Tradition

Posted by True Highlands in Kit and Caboodle | 14 comments

The Winter Solstice falls on the 21st of December. In the northern hemisphere, this date marks the turning point of the season, the shortest day and the longest night. Nowadays at this time of year it is normal that people’s attention turns to celebrating Christmas, however, the ritual and history surrounding the solstice in this country and all over Europe, predate the arrival of Christianity by thousands of years and many festive celebrations have been adapted from much earlier traditions.

The ancient people of northern Europe were hunter gatherers, many of whom worshipped the sun. In Norse mythology the sun is a wheel that changes the seasons and it was from the word for this wheel, houl, that the word yule comes from. At the mid-winter solstice they would light bonfires, tell stories and drink ale, in addition to making sacrifices to the gods to earn blessing on the forthcoming crops.

This winter solstice was immensely important to them because they were economically dependent on monitoring the progress of the seasons. Food shortages were common during the first months of the winter, so this festival was the last celebration before deep winter began. Most cattle would be slaughtered so they would not have to be fed during the winter, so a plentiful supply of fresh meat was available. The majority of wine and beer made during the year was finally fermented and ready for drinking.

Photo Credit: Colin Macdonald via Creative Commons

In Scotland, before the arrival of Christianity, on the solstice, Celtic priests would cut the mistletoe that grew on the oak tree and give it as a blessing. Oaks were seen as sacred and the winter fruit of the mistletoe was a symbol of life in the dark winter months.

It was also the Druidic priests who maintained the tradition of the yule log. The ancient Celtic people believed that the sun stood still for twelve days in the middle of winter and during this time a log was lit, using the remains of the previous year’s fire. It was believed it would conquer the darkness, banish evil spirits and bring luck for the coming year.

Much of our current festive tradition actually originates with pagan solstice customs, such as decorating the Yule tree. Brightly coloured decorations would be hung on a pine tree to symbolize the various stellar objects, which were of tremendous significance to the Celtic people – the sun, moon, and stars – and also to represent the souls of those who had died in the previous year. The modern practice of gift giving evolved from the tradition of hanging gifts on the tree as offerings to various Gods and Goddesses.

The ancient Romans also held a solstice festival at this time, called Saturnalia, to celebrate the rebirth of the year. This was a time when the ordinary rules were turned upside down. Grudges and quarrels were forgotten while businesses, courts and schools were closed. Wars were interrupted or postponed and slaves were served by their masters.

It was traditional to offer gifts of imitation fruit (a symbol of fertility), dolls (symbolic of the custom of human sacrifice), and candles (reminiscent of the bonfires traditionally associated with pagan solstice celebrations). A mock king was chosen, usually from a group of slaves or criminals, and although he was permitted to behave in an unrestrained manner for seven days of the festival, he was usually killed at the end. The Saturnalia eventually degenerated into a week-long spree of debauchery and crime which was ultimately unsustainable.

Sol Invictus (“The Unconquered Sun”) was originally a Syrian deity, who was adopted as the chief of the Roman gods. In the later Roman Empire his birthday was celebrated on December 25. As celebrations of saturnalia died away this evolved to become the pre-eminent winter festival, the date was eventually co-opted by Christians as the faith spread.

As a contrast, the Talmud ascribes the origins of this festival to Adam, who saw that the days were getting shorter and thought it was punishment for his sin. He was afraid that the world was returning to the chaos and emptiness that existed before creation so he fasted. Once he saw that the days were getting longer again he realized that this was the natural cycle of the world, so celebrated.

Maeshawe Cairn. Photo: Russel Wills via CC

Whatever the exact origins of the rituals we practice this festive season, it does seem that there has been a growth of interest in traditional religions and practices. People who describe themselves as new-age or spiritual seekers have rediscovered the rituals of the ancients and have attempted to celebrate in a way that connects them to the past. One of the centres for this pre Christian worship this solstice will be at Callanish on the Isle of Lewis. These standing stones date from about 3,000 years BC and, although academics still argue about their precise purpose, there is no questioning the powerful pull they have. Instead of the £99 it costs tourists to watch sunrise at Stonehenge there will be a community of pagans, druids and assorted curious people gathered at Callanish on the solstice who will not be charged or chaperoned.

Maeshowe is a Neolithic chambered cairn and passage grave on Orkney. It was built at around the same time and its architecture clearly links it to the solstice tradition. It is here at the winter solstice, when the last rays of the setting sun shine through Maeshowe’s entrance passage to pierce the darkness of the chambered cairn. This precise alignment allows the light at the darkest point of the year to illuminate this spectacular house of the dead. It is the source of many theories; does this shaft of sunlight carry away the souls of the dead? Did the entry of the sun represent rebirth, or a fertility rite of some sort? Or was it simply a calendar to remind the islands ancient inhabitants that the darkest time of the year had passed and that the light was once again returning? Thanks to modern technology it is possible to experience a small part of what the original solstice celebrants must have envisioned. A webcam has been installed that will broadcast live images for those that cannot make the journey there themselves.

In a way, this serves a purpose not completely divorced from the original intentions. What is common in most solstice tradition is that this time of year is about coming together and remembering the past. Celebrations have evolved and changed, but the date of the solstice remains fixed. A convenient reminder that, despite the vast changes taking place in our world today, some things will always endure, always link back to the past.

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Comments (14)
  1. catherine laing says:

    Lovely to read these old traditions are still remembered.

  2. Steven says:

    Good to know, better to remember.

  3. Krisy says:

    Thank you for your work, both writing this article, and doing the necessary research.

  4. Monica says:

    Wonderful article, thank you! I’m inspired to have a Yule log ceremony tonight! Blessings to you in the new year.

    • True Highlands says:

      Bright blessings and enjoy your celebrations!

  5. Andrew Watt says:

    Theres a similar solstice winter sunlight chamber near Culloden, Inverness called Clava Cairns. The sun rests as a crown at sunset.

  6. Victor Ortiz says:

    Was there a Celtic name for the season?

    • Lisa Orr says:

      Victor, The tradition of Yule was practiced well before the Celts arrived on the Islands of what is now UK.

  7. Rosana says:

    Great to know that nowadays people are free to show off their faith and trying to rescue past traditions that were cruelly smashed

  8. Ann Stokman says:

    Love to hear of these traditions.

  9. Jan Rose says:

    Really interesting. Great article.

  10. Regina E Orlando says:

    Bright Blessings!! I loved learning more about Winter Solstice traditions!!

  11. Sandra (Gordon) Rader says:

    Thank you for this enlightening history lesson. I really enjoyed it as I am of Scottish decent.

  12. Jamie Fraser says:

    Very interesting. So sad that so much of this ancient knowledge has been lost to the mists of time.

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