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Winter Solstice
By Sarah Groff-Palermo

This stone structure in Ireland was built around 5,000 years ago. Known as Newgrange, it was built so that at dawn on the Winter Solstice a bright ray of sunlight would shine deep into its dark inside chamber.
Photo courtesy of Corbis
The first day of winter—which has fewer hours of daylight than any other day—has been a focus for frights, festivals, and religious observance for almost as long as there have been humans.

Winter begins on the solstice on December 21 when the weather is cold and few things grow. But it also marks the end of harvest time, so there is plenty of food for feasts. And since each day after the solstice has more daylight than the day before it, it also holds the promise of spring and a new harvest.

Different societies have focused on different parts of the solstice over the centuries, but throughout human history December 21 has been a special day.

Stones and the Monsters of Chaos: Ancient Celebrations
Some say the first celebrations of Winter Solstice were held 4,000 years ago by the Mesopotamians. They held a 12-day festival around the solstice to help the god Marduk tame the monsters of chaos for one more year. However, ancient structures around the world suggest that people marked the solstice way before that.

Newgrange is a stone structure in Ireland that is older than Stonehenge or the Egyptian Pyramids. Built around 5,000 years ago, this mound was carefully constructed so that at dawn on the Winter Solstice a bright ray of sunlight would shine deep into its dark inside chamber. The sunlight reveals beautiful circular carvings. Even though we don’t know what the builders of Newgrange did on the solstice, this building makes it clear that is was a very important day.

By the time the Ancient Greeks turned up, Winter Solstice celebrations were here to stay. Like the Mesopotamians, the Greeks thought the short days were a time of chaos and danger. They believed that during the 12 days of Christmas, chaotic demons called Kallikantzaroi roamed the Earth playing jokes on humans, like braiding horse tails and curdling milk. To scare them away, the Greeks would keep their Christmas logs burning. They would also burn shoes—the smell was said to keep demons away.

When in Rome...It’s Time to Party: Saturnalia
The Romans, on the other hand, weren’t worried by the solstice. Instead, it was a time to party. During Saturnalia, as the Romans called the days of the solstice, it was time to celebrate Saturn, god of seeds. Great feasts were held and parades filled the streets. Everybody gave and received presents.

Normal rules of conduct were suspended. Children were in charge of parents and masters served their slaves. Grudges were forgotten and wars were postponed. Lamps were lit to chase away the darkness. Best of all, a fake king called the Lord of Misrule was crowned to lead all the merriment.

Basically, for the Romans, the Winter Solstice was just one good time.

Helping the Sun: Yule
It was easy for the Romans to think of winter as a time to celebrate. They lived in the Mediterranean, where winter was mild and short. In Scandinavia, where winter is very long, very cold, and very dark, most solstice celebrations focused on helping the sun and avoiding the trouble that lurks in the dark.

The Yule Log, usually part of a large bonfire, inspired the sun to shine strongly again. Evergreens, which are of course green all year round, helped people remember that life survives even in winter. Holly was one of the most important evergreens because its sharp edges kept evil spirits away.

Lazy children in Iceland, however, were never completely safe. The Yule Cat was known to come and snatch those who hadn’t finished all their autumn work—and that included homework.

Christmas and the Solstice
With all these wintertime celebrations going on, it’s no surprise that Christmas is related to solstice celebration too. About 1,700 years ago, early Christians celebrated Christmas anywhere between December and April. Then, the Romans decided that Christmas and Saturnalia should be celebrated at the same time. As Christianity spread through Europe, Christmas picked up other solstice traditions. That’s why today Christians have presents like Saturnalia and holly like Yule.

Solstice Celebrations Today
But the Winter Solstice didn’t just disappear into other holidays. Many people still celebrate it today. Iranians and some Native Americans all have their own solstice celebrations.

In the Iranian Sada or Yalda, people do a variety of things to encourage the sun to grow stronger. Some families sit up all night with lamps burning to help the light triumph. Others light bonfires at sunset to encourage the sun.

Native Americans also have ceremonies to make sure light wins over darkness and the sun comes back. The Hopi have a month of rituals, called Soyal. During this month they feast, make prayer sticks, and have a rabbit hunt. Pueblo Indians also have ceremonies, which differ from pueblo to pueblo.