The winter solstice occurs exactly when the Earth's axial tilt is farthest away from the sun. Winter solstice lasts only an instant in time. At that time, we experience the shortest day and longest night. But from that day onward until the Summer Solstice, each day gets longer and the night gets shorter.
So even though the days began to get longer and people saw this as a good sign in the earlier days before modernization, this time of the year was a very hard time in the northern hemisphere, and many people died of starvation. Folks would slaughter their livestock so not to have to feed them during those months.
Today worldwide, interpretation of the event has varied from culture to culture, but most cultures have conducted ceremonies in recognition of rebirth involving holidays, festivals, gatherings, rituals or other celebrations around that time.
In 46 BCE in his Julian calendar, Julius Caesar established December 25 as the date of the winter solstice of Europe. Some 375-plus years later, when the Council of Nicaea wanted to take Christianity worldwide (at that time it was meant throughout Europe), they used the same day the pagans used to cerebrate the winter solstice, thus replacing the Winter Solstice celebration with the birth of Jesus, The Christ.
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 attested 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 (New Grange) 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. 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 in winter between January and April, 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.
As you can see, these were much harder days and the meaning of light and darkness seemed to have a direct and harsh impact on most people. But you can also understand the roots of some of our celebrations and customs, especially those of us who are descendants of ancestors from northern Europe.
There is a wonderful celebration of the Winter Solstice in New York City at The Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine on Amsterdam and 113th street. I have been to it many times and have taken my children and friends. Everyone agrees that it’s an amazing event.
For more information about this event, go to http://www.stjohndivine.org/WinterSolstice08.html.
Happy Solstice to all.