What is the meaning of winter solstice, and why bother to mark the event?
Many people and cultures around the world celebrate it.
The word "solstice" originates from the Latin "sol" (meaning sun) and "statum" (stand still). It reflects what we see on the first days of summer and winter. At dawn for two or three days, the sun seems to linger for several minutes in its passage across the sky.
"Turnings of the sun" is an old phrase, used by both Hesiod and Homer. The novelist Alan Furst has one of his characters observe, "the day the sun is said to pause. ... Pleasing, that idea. ... As though the universe stopped for a moment to reflect, took a day off from work. One could sense it, time slowing down."
Just about every culture has its own way of acknowledging this phenomenon.
Winter Solstice morphing into Yule or Christmas
The transition from Roman paganism to Christianity, with its similar rites, took several centuries.
With the Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in the fourth century, customs were quickly appropriated and refashioned, as the sun and God’s son became inextricably entwined.
Although the New Testament gives no indication of Christ’s actual birthday (early writers preferring a spring date), in 354 Pope Liberius declared it to have befallen on Dec. 25.
The advantages of Christmas Day being celebrated then were obvious.
As the Christian commentator Syrus wrote: "It was a custom of the pagans to celebrate on the same Dec. 25 the birthday of the sun, at which they kindled lights in token of festivity .... Accordingly, when the church authorities perceived that the Christians had a leaning to this festival, they took counsel and resolved that the true Nativity should be solemnized on that day."
In Christendom, the Nativity gradually absorbed all other winter solstice rites, and the co-opting of solar imagery was part of the same process.
The solar discs that had once been depicted behind the heads of Asian rulers became the halos of Christian luminaries. Despite the new religion’s apparent supremacy, many of the old customs survived — so much so that church elders worried that the veneration of Christ was being lost.
In the fifth century, St. Augustine of Hippo and Pope Leo the Great felt compelled to remind their flocks that Christ, not the sun, was the proper object of their worship.
While Roman Christianity was the dominant culture in Western Europe, it was by no means the only one.
By millennium's end, the Danes controlled most of England, bringing with them "Yule," their name for winter solstice celebrations, probably derived from an earlier term for "wheel."
For centuries, the most sacred Norse symbol had been the wheel of the heavens, represented by a six- or eight-spoked wheel or by a cross within a wheel signifying solar rays.
The Norse peoples, many of whom settled in what is now Yorkshire, would construct huge solar wheels and place them next to hilltop bonfires, while in the Middle Ages processions bore wheels upon chariots or boats.
In other parts of Europe, where the Vikings were feared and hated, a taboo on using spinning wheels during solstices lasted well into the 20th century. The spinning-wheel on which Sleeping Beauty pricks her finger may exemplify this sense of menace.
Throughout much of Europe, at least up until the 16th century, starvation was common from January to April, a period known as "the famine months." Most cattle were slaughtered so they would not have to be fed over the winter, making the solstice almost the only time of year that fresh meat was readily available.
Yet above all other rituals, reproducing the sun’s fire by kindling flame on earth is the commonest solstice practice, both at midsummer and midwinter. Thomas Hardy, describing Dorset villagers around a bonfire in "The Return of the Native," offers one explanation:
"To light a fire is the instinctive and resistant act of men when, at the winter ingress, the curfew is sounded throughout nature. It indicates a spontaneous, Promethean rebelliousness against the fiat that this recurrent season shall bring foul times, cold darkness, misery and death. Black chaos comes, and the fettered gods of the earth say, 'Let there be light.' "
So there is good reason to celebrate the winter solstice — and chances are it will retain its significance for centuries to come.