December 21, 2015 by

Christmas and the Winter Solstice


Categories: Research, Tags: , , ,

Stonehenge_Winter_Solstice_2007December 22nd is the winter solstice in 2015. This is Stonehenge at the Winter Solstice in 2007. I’m pretty sure a whole bunch of those people have no idea why they’re there 🙂

Cultures throughout the world and throughout history have celebrated the winter solstice, carefully calculating it’s date and time for sunrise and sunset, and aligning standing stones, worship sites, and burials in coordination with the sky.  Wikipedia has an excellent catalog of these events:

“The December solstice occurs when the sun reaches its most southerly declination of -23.5 degrees. In other words, it is when the North Pole is tilted 23.5 degrees away from the sun. Depending on the Gregorian calendar, the December solstice occurs annually on a day between December 20 and December 23. On this date, all places above a latitude of 66.5 degrees north are now in darkness, while locations below a latitude of 66.5 degrees south receive 24 hours of daylight.”

The Romans first linked Christmas with the solstice.  They pegged the event to December 25th because, since 43 BC, this date was the winter solstice in the Julian calendar.  It was only in 1582 that Pope Gregory XIII reconciled the calendar with the actual astronomical solstice, moving the solstice to December 21 (and keeping Christmas on the 25th).

From  “In ancient Babylon, the feast of the Son of Isis (Goddess of Nature) was celebrated on December 25. Raucous partying, gluttonous eating and drinking, and gift-giving were traditions of this feast.

In Rome, the Winter Solstice was celebrated many years before the birth of Christ. The Romans called their winter holiday Saturnalia, honoring Saturn, the God of Agriculture. In January, they observed the Kalends of January, which represented the triumph of life over death. This whole season was called Dies Natalis Invicti Solis, the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun. The festival season was marked by much merrymaking. It is in ancient Rome that the tradition of the Mummers was born. The Mummers were groups of costumed singers and dancers who traveled from house to house entertaining their neighbors. From this, the Christmas tradition of caroling was born.

In northern Europe, many other traditions that we now consider part of Christian worship were begun long before the participants had ever heard of Christ. The pagans of northern Europe celebrated the their own winter solstice, known as Yule. Yule was symbolic of the pagan Sun God, Mithras, being born, and was observed on the shortest day of the year. As the Sun God grew and matured, the days became longer and warmer. It was customary to light a candle to encourage Mithras, and the sun, to reappear next year.

According to my go-to online etymological dictionary, Yule: yule (n.) Look up yule at Dictionary.comOld English geol, geola “Christmas Day, Christmastide,” from Old Norse jol (plural), a heathen feast, later taken over by Christianity, of unknown origin.

The Old English (Anglian) cognate giuli was the Anglo-Saxons’ name for a two-month midwinter season corresponding to Roman December and January, a time of important feasts but not itself a festival. After conversion to Christianity it narrowed to mean “the 12-day feast of the Nativity” (which began Dec. 25), but was replaced by Christmas by 11c., except in the northeast (areas of Danish settlement), where it remained the usual word.

Revived 19c. by writers to mean “the Christmas of ‘Merrie England.’ ” First direct reference to the Yule log is 17c. Old Norse jol seems to have been borrowed in Old French as jolif, hence Modern French joli “pretty, nice,” originally “festive” (see jolly).

The tree is the one symbol that unites almost all the northern European winter solstices. Live evergreen trees were often brought into homes during the harsh winters as a reminder to inhabitants that soon their crops would grow again. Evergreen boughs were sometimes carried as totems of good luck and were often present at weddings, representing fertility. The Druids used the tree as a religious symbol, holding their sacred ceremonies while surrounding and worshipping huge trees.

In 350, Pope Julius I declared that Christ’s birth would be celebrated on December 25. There is little doubt that he was trying to make it as painless as possible for pagan Romans (who remained a majority at that time) to convert to Christianity. The new religion went down a bit easier, knowing that their feasts would not be taken away from them.”


5 Responses to Christmas and the Winter Solstice

  1. Pingback: Welsh New Year’s Eve traditions: Happy holidays | Marie Powell

  2. John Cowan

    Merriam-Webster Online, the American Heritage Dictionary, Etymology Online and the OED agree that the origin of Yule is unknown; it seems to have always meant the festival of the transition period between the Old Year and the New. There is a lot of bogus etymology to be found on the Internet: the four sources I just mentioned are far and away the most trustworthy. Yule did take a detour through French and give us jolly (from joli), though, so jolly old St. Nick and the holly-jolly holiday are seasonally appropriate.

    The holly and the ivy have long been associated with midwinter, as in the carol of that name, whose off-rhymes grown-crown and blood-good work in Middle English but not in Modern English.

    • Sarah Post author

      I’m sure we are descended from the same Woodburys. John Woodbury came to Cape Ann on the Zouch Phoenix in 1624 as a mercantile/fisherman venture. He went back to England and returned in 1628 with his son, Humphrey, and his ‘brother’ (we think it’s his brother) William Woodbury. We’re probably 13th generation cousins 🙂

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