Celts and Gaels, Christianity

Winter Solstice

Winter Solstice occurs on December 21 or 22 in the Northern hemisphere. It refers to “the shortest day of the year,” when the least amount of sunlight reaches the earth. The term “solstice” derives from the Latin words sol (sun) and sistere (to stand), meaning that the sun has reached its northernmost ecliptic and appears to stand still.

Stonehenge in Winter

Throughout history, many cultures and religions have marked this day with festivals and rituals. This is in celebration of the fact they have survived halfway through the winter (this holiday is sometimes called “Midwinter celebrations”). This was especially significant in northern European countries, where it was not always certain that food storage would last through winter months.

To many societies, Winter Solstice also symbolized the earth’s regeneration or rebirth. From this day forward, the days would continually grow longer as sunlight increased. Worship of a sun god or goddess is frequently associated with this celebration, as for example the goddess Beiwe in Scandinavia. Beiwe is associated with health and fertility, and was believed to have travelled through the sky, helping plants to regain their green colour.

In ancient Ireland, Celts celebrated Meán Geimhridh during the Winter Solstice. Each day between December 19 and 23, rays from the sunrise would shine through a sacred hallway and room built at just the right angles to capture the light.

In Slavic areas known today as Russia, Bulgaria, and Ukraine, earlier societies believed that evil spirits were most powerful on the shortest day of the year. Darkness and the Black God defeated the sun on the Winter Solstice, after which a New Sun was born. The Old Sun, named Hors, was commemorated with a ritual dance.

Still other cultures hold winter celebrations near, but not on, the day of Winter Solstice. These, too, often involve light, fires, greenery, and merry festivities. For example, Christmas was originally scheduled to fall on the Winter Solstice. Until 1582, when the Gregorian calendar replaced the Julian calendar, the solstice took place on December 25.

Scandinavians commemorate Saint Lucy on December 13, which is equivalent to the Winter Solstice in the Julian calendar. This saint’s name refers to light (the name Lucy is derived from the Latin word for light, lux). In popular celebrations today, young girls dress up as Saint Lucy in honour of the holiday.

Throughout history and in many regions of the world, peoples have marked the Winter Solstice as a yearly cycle of life. It is a turning point, a time for reflection on the past and for hope in the future.

Many Christmas traditions and customs have their origins in Winter Solstice celebrations. For example the burning of a yule log, hanging holly and mistletoe and other greenery inside homes, feasting and dancing, storytelling and social gatherings all can be linked to pagan celebrations at this time of year.

holly king


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