Winter Solstice

Winter solstice is an astronomical phenomenon which marks the shortest day and the longest night of the year. Winter solstice occurs for the Northern Hemisphere in December and for the Southern Hemisphere in June.

winter solstice

The axial tilt of Earth and gyroscopic effects of the planet’s daily rotation keep the axis of rotation pointed at the same point in the sky. As the Earth follows its orbit around the Sun, the same hemisphere that faced away from the Sun, experiencing winter, will, in half a year, face towards the Sun and experience summer. Since the two hemispheres face opposite directions along the planetary pole, as one polar hemisphere experiences winter, the other experiences summer.

More evident from high latitudes, a hemisphere’s winter solstice occurs on the shortest day and longest night of the year, when the sun’s daily maximum elevation in the sky is the lowest. The winter solstice itself lasts only a moment in time, so other terms are used for the day on which it occurs, such as “midwinter”, or “the shortest day”. For the same reason, it should not be confused with “the first day of winter” or “the start of winter”. The seasonal significance of the winter solstice is in the reversal of the gradual lengthening of nights and shortening of days. The earliest sunset and latest sunrise dates differ from winter solstice, however, and these depend on latitude, due to the variation in the solar day throughout the year caused by the Earth’s elliptical orbit.Worldwide, interpretation of the event has varied from culture to culture, but many cultures have held a recognition of rebirth, involving holidays, festivals, gatherings, rituals or other celebrations around that time.

yule blessings

The solstice itself may have been a special moment of the annual cycle of the year even during neolithic times. Astronomical events, which during ancient times controlled the mating of animals, sowing of crops and metering of winter reserves between harvests, show how various cultural mythologies and traditions have arisen. This is evidenced by physical remains in the layouts of late Neolithic and Bronze Age archaeological sites, such as Stonehenge in Britain and Newgrange in Ireland. The primary axes of both of these monuments seem to have been carefully aligned on a sight-line pointing to the winter solstice sunrise (Newgrange) and the winter solstice sunset (Stonehenge). Significant in respect of Stonehenge is the fact that the Great Trilithon was erected outwards from the centre of the monument, i.e., its smooth flat face was turned towards the midwinter Sun.

stonehenge winter solstice
The winter solstice may have been immensely important because communities were not certain of living through the winter, and had to be prepared during the previous nine months. Starvation was common during the first months of the winter, January to April (northern hemisphere) or July to October (southern hemisphere), also known as “the famine months”. In temperate climates, the midwinter festival was the last feast celebration, before deep winter began. Most cattle were slaughtered so they would not have to be fed during the winter, so it was almost the only time of year when a supply of fresh meat was available. The majority of wine and beer made during the year was finally fermented and ready for drinking at this time. The concentration of the observances were not always on the day commencing at midnight or at dawn, but the beginning of the pre-Romanized day, which falls on the previous eve.

Since the event is seen as the reversal of the Sun’s ebbing presence in the sky, concepts of the birth or rebirth of sun gods have been common and, in cultures using winter solstice based cyclic calendars, the year as reborn has been celebrated with regard to life-death-rebirth deities or new beginnings such as Hogmanay’s redding, a New Year cleaning tradition.

sun god

Also reversal is yet another usual theme as in Saturnalia’s slave and master reversals.

master slave

In many Celtic-based traditions, there is the enduring legend of the battle between the Oak King and the Holly King. These two mighty rulers fight for supremacy as the Wheel of the Year turns each season. At the Winter Solstice, or Yule, the Oak King conquers the Holly King, and then reigns until Midsummer, or Litha. Once the Summer Solstice arrives, the Holly King returns to do battle with the old king, and defeats him. Each of these twin aspects rules for half the year, battles for the favour of the Goddess, and then retires to nurse his wounds for the next six months, until it is time for him to reign once more.

oak king holly king

Often, these two entities are portrayed in familiar ways – the Holly King frequently appears as a sylvan version of Santa Claus. He dresses in red, wears a crown of holly, and is sometimes depicted driving a team of eight stags. The Oak King is portrayed as a fertility god, and occasionally appears as the Green Man or other lord of the forest.Ultimately, while these two beings do battle all year long, they are two essential parts of a whole. Despite being enemies, without one, the other would no longer exist.  In some traditions, the Oak King and the Holly King are seen as dual aspects of the Horned God.

horned god

Yule or Yuletide (“Yule time”) is a pagan religious festival observed by the historical Germanic peoples, later being absorbed into and equated with the Christian festival of Christmas. The earliest references to Yule are by way of indigenous Germanic month names Ærra Jéola (Before Yule) or Jiuli and Æftera Jéola (After Yule). Scholars have connected the celebration to the Wild Hunt, the god Odin and the pagan Anglo-Saxon Modranicht.

wild hunt

Terms with an etymological equivalent to Yule are used in the Nordic countries for Christmas with its religious rites, but also for the holidays of this season. Yule is also used to a lesser extent in English-speaking countries to refer to Christmas. Customs such as the Yule log, Yule goat, Yule boar, Yule singing, and others stem from Yule.

yule log

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