Today is the December solstice, which, astronomically speaking, is not a day but a moment, and can fall anywhere from December 20th to December 22nd. This year it happens to occur very late on the 21st here in Cambodia, and rather earlier in Europe and the Americas, so we’re good to go. Without going into excruciating detail (nor being entirely accurate), the solstice occurs when the sun appears to stand still, from the Latin sol (“sun”) and sistere (“to stand still”), in its apparent movement north to the tropic of cancer once per year, and south to the tropic of capricorn 6 months later. Changing directions is the matter of a mere moment, but historically cultures have celebrated the entire day when the change occurs, because the moment is not really detectable as such. It can be calculated, but you can’t see it happening. If it’s cloudy that day, you can’t actually see it at all, and even if you can see the sun, its apparent change of direction can take a day or two to be obvious. Assigning a day is convenient for everyone.
The solstice is called the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere and the summer solstice in the southern hemisphere because they are diametrically opposite. This is the shortest day in the year in the north, and the longest day in the year in the south. Consequently, I don’t generally like to be ethnocentric about solstices, but this year I will make an exception and focus on the wintry side of things because we are in Christmastide, and Christmas makes more sense as a winter festival than as a summer one, even though I’ve celebrated them in both summer and winter. Winter suits me better for Christmas. Likewise spring suits Easter much better than autumn.
Marking the solstice probably goes back to Neolithic times; certainly it was an important time in northern latitudes where crops were sown, and animals tended. Neolithic and Bronze Age archaeological sites, such as Stonehenge in England and Newgrange in Ireland attest to this fact, as do Inca, Aztec, and Mayan sites. It is naïve in the extreme to think that “primitive” peoples were afraid every winter that the sun was dying and would never return unless certain magical rituals were performed. People are not that stupid. Did they also think the sun died every night? Of course not. Experience tells you it will rise again the next day. Likewise, “primitive” people knew about the cycle of the seasons. They built Stonehenge, and like monuments, not so much to worship the sun (although that may have been a component), but to predict its course year to year so that they could plan their annual activities accordingly.
The primary axes of both of ancient monuments seem to have been carefully aligned on a sight-line pointing to the winter solstice sunrise (Newgrange) and the winter solstice sunset (Stonehenge). It is significant that at Stonehenge the Great Trilithon was oriented outwards from the middle of the monument, that is, its smooth flat face was turned towards the midwinter Sun. The winter solstice was immensely important because the people were economically dependent on monitoring the progress of the seasons. 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 plentiful supply of fresh meat was available. The bulk of wine and beer made during the year was finally fermented and ready for drinking at this time.
Iranian people celebrate the night of the Northern Hemisphere’s winter solstice as, “Yalda night”, which is known to be the “longest and darkest night of the year”. On this night all the family gather together, usually at the house of the oldest, and celebrate it by eating, drinking and reading poems (esp. Hafez). Nuts, pomegranates and watermelons are especially served during this festival.
The pagan Scandinavian and Germanic people of northern Europe celebrated a midwinter (winter solstice) holiday called Yule (also called Jul, Julblot, jólablót, midvinterblot, julofferfest) and also called the season or one of the winter months by the same name. Scandinavians still use a cognate of “Jul” for this time of year. In English, the word “Yule” is often used in combination with the season “yuletide” a usage first recorded in the 9th century. The Norse god associated with Jul was Jólner, which is one of Odin’s many names. The concept of Yule occurs in a tribute poem to Harold Hårfager from about 900, where “drinking Jul” is referred to. Julblot is the most important feast. At the “julblotet”, sacrifices were given to the gods to earn blessing on the forthcoming germinating crops.
Sol Invictus (“The Unconquered Sun”) was originally a Syrian god who was later adopted as the chief god of the Roman Empire under emperor Aurelian. He too was worshipped and feasted around the Midwinter solstice. What we have to be careful of is believing that Christmas evolved out of traditions such as Sol Invictus celebrations and the like. It did not, even though in some cultures some Midwinter customs, such as decorating with holly and mistletoe, were transferred over. Christmas is a Christian tradition – end of story. The activities associated with Christmas in different cultures may have been picked up from Midwinter celebrations in general. That’s only natural. Is eating a big festive meal somehow a pagan tradition, or is it just something we all do on significant holidays?
I think making a chocolate Yule log is a merry thing to do today if you live in the northern hemisphere. I used to make one every year as part of my Christmas baking. I’ll confess that I usually cheated, but it was fun anyway. I would buy a chocolate Swiss roll and cut it and shape it so that it resembled a log with a branch coming off one side. Then I would slather it with a chocolate icing, mark the icing with a fork to resemble bark, let it dry a little, dust it with icing sugar for snow, and add a sprig of holly from the garden for decoration. It never lasted long in my house.