Today is a special day for many reasons. It’s December 21 also known as a very old traditional celebration called Winter Solstice. Many people around the world associate Solstice celebrations with Wiccans or Pagans. But the origins of Solstice dates even further back in history. Many believe that Winter Solstice began with the Roman Empire but truth be told, it’s much older than that!
So, instead of whining about migraines which I still have three weeks later, I’m going to share with you what I know about this special day.
What is Winter Solstice?
In short form, winter solstice is the shortest day of the year and has the longest night. It’s 3:30 pm as I write this and the sun has already started to set. It’s been a cloudy day which makes it appear even darker. The word solstice means twice each year. The longest day of the year is celebrated in June – Summer Solstice.
But what makes today special is that it’s a warm day. And not only that -but this is also the very first year you can also see the Star of Bethlehem since 1226.
Winter Solstice Origins
The earliest recorded observations of Winter Solstice started around 10,200 B.C. This is also known as the stone age. The stone age is defined as an era where early humans used stone as their main tools in daily life.
The infamous tourist site, Stonehenge, is thought to be a place of worship and ritual for the stone age people. It is believed that Stonehenge and similar structures around the world, were used as a calendar of sorts to mark the beginning end of seasons. This calendar would be have been a useful tool for the farmer’s planting and harvesting crops.
Other notable landmarks include the Newgrange in Ireland and Maeshow in Scotland that are also aligned with the sun.
The Roman Empire
In ancient Rome, celebrations were held around December 21 to honour their “chief god” – Sol Invictus, also known as the “Unconquered Sun.” According to historians, on December 25 AD 274, Emperor Aurelian made this an official religion. However it seems that the origin of this religion is widely debated among scholars today.
Saturnalia, was a holiday to honour the god of agriculture also known as Saturn. These celebrations were held the week before winter solstice.
Ancient Romans celebrated the holiday by closing down businesses, schools and courts. Decorations were hung in homes which included handmade wreaths, mistletoe and berries. They also indulged in gambling, drinking, music, and exchanging gifts. The remarkable thing about this ancient holiday is that even the slaves were allowed to participate in celebrations and were sometimes even served by their masters.
Yuletide – Paganism
In religions such as Druidism and Paganism, Yuletide is celebrated on this day around the world. It is a mid-winter festival of joy (Jol) and tide.
For ancient Celts, Winter Solstice was one of the most significant times of the year. There are ancient monuments that can be found across Europe that have captured the impact of the sun’s rays during Winter and Summer Solstice.
Ancient Druids gathered berries and mistletoe from oak trees to place in their homes as decorations. This was seen as a Celtic religious ceremony and the oak tree was considered sacred.
Midwinter celebrations were called Alband Arthan which means “light of the bear.” For some Druids, it refers to the constellation of the Great Bear in our northern skies.
For many Pagans and Druids, the earth is worshipped much like other deities. People of ancient times would light candles and gather closely together around large campfires. They danced, sang and played instruments like drums and pan flutes.
If you want to experience a Yuletide celebration this year – light some candles, listen to some Celtic or German music and decorate your home with mistletoe and holly. If you’re lucky enough to have a fireplace, tonight would be a perfect night to drink an Irish ale while sitting in front of a warm fire. It’s already pitch black here and it’s now only 5:00 pm as I update this post.
The name for Christmas was adopted from Mass of Christ. While the actual date of Jesus’ birth is unknown, scholars believed it to be on December 21 or close to it in 1000 AD. I’m not an expert on ancient history or dates, so I’ll leave it at that.
Christmas is my favorite time of year for so many reasons. It’s the celebrations, getting together with loved ones, and more importantly – the wonderful gift of music that brings us all together.
This Christmas, I wanted to do something different for music. I chose some of my favorite Celtic Christmas carols and recorded them using the sounds of instruments that would have been used in ancient times. To honour this very special day, here is my cover of In the Midbleak Winter.
This album really brings out my desire to learn more about my mother’s heritage. Though she was born in England, my grandfather’s family was Irish.
How are you celebrating this most magical day? Let me know in the comments! Theology and ancient history is another passion and hobby of mine. I love researching and writing about special holidays and traditions around the world.