Winter Solstice

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winter solstice

1. the time at which the sun is at its southernmost point in the sky (northernmost point in the S hemisphere) appearing at noon at its lowest altitude above the horizon. It occurs about December 22 (June 21 in the S hemisphere)
2. Astronomy the point on the celestial sphere, opposite the summer solstice, at which the ecliptic is furthest south from the celestial equator. Right ascension: 18 hours; declination: --23.5°
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005

Winter Solstice

Winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, falls on December 21 or 22 in the Northern Hemisphere. Winter solstice marks that turning point in the year after which the days begin to lengthen and the nights begin to shorten. In the Northern Hemisphere the longest day of the year, summer solstice, falls on June 21 or 22. In the Southern Hemisphere this same day is observed as winter solstice. In the course of human history many peoples have honored the solstices with ceremonies and festivals. Early Christian authorities placed Christmas near the winter solstice in the hopes of replacing pagan holidays clustered on and around that date (see also December 25).

Solstice Astronomy

The word "solstice" comes from the Latin phrase sol stitium, which means "the sun stands still." A daily observer of the sunrise will notice that the sun comes up at a slightly different position along the horizon each day. In the Northern Hemisphere, as summer turns to winter, the sun rises a bit further to the south each day. The days grow shorter and the nights longer. Finally, the sun appears to rise over the same point on the horizon for several days in a row. This is the time of the winter solstice, the time when the sun appears to "stand still" along the horizon. In reality, the sunrise still moves on those days, but only very slightly. The actual day of the solstice occurs when the sun reaches its southernmost position along the horizon. This happens on the shortest day and longest night of the year. The following day the sun begins to move north along the horizon, and the days slowly begin to lengthen while the nights shorten. The days continue to grow longer until the summer solstice, after which they begin to shorten again as the sun once more turns southward.

The explanation for this yearly cycle lies in the mechanics of the earth's orbit around the sun. The earth's axis, the hypothetical line connecting the North and South Poles, does not meet the plane of the earth's orbit around the sun at a perpendicular angle. Instead, the earth is tilted 23 degrees to one side. This tilt causes the earth's exposure to the sun to vary throughout the year.

During one six-month period of the earth's yearly orbit, the tilt points the North Pole towards the sun. During this period the Northern Hemisphere gradually gains exposure to the sun, while the Southern Hemisphere loses exposure. In the north the days lengthen and the sun crosses the sky more directly overhead, hence the weather grows warmer. Three months after the winter solstice the Northern Hemisphere arrives at the spring equinox, the twentyfour hour period in which night and day are of equal lengths. Night and day are also of equal lengths in the Southern Hemisphere on that same date. There, since the days are growing shorter, the event is called the autumn equinox. In the north the days continue to lengthen and the nights to shorten until the very last day of this sixmonth period, summer solstice, the longest day of the year. This situation reverses itself during the next six months. As the earth continues its orbit around the sun, the tilt begins to turn the South Pole towards the sun and the North Pole away from it. This decreases the Northern Hemisphere's exposure to the sun's warming rays while increasing the Southern Hemisphere's exposure. As a result, the days lengthen in the Southern Hemisphere, bringing spring and summer to that zone while the people of the Northern Hemisphere experience fall and winter. The solstices as well as the equinoxes are reversed. The same day on which northerners experience winter solstice, southerners experience summer solstice.

The effect of this yearly cycle increases as one moves away from the equator and is greatest near the Poles, which undergo months of unbroken light or darkness near the solstices. The prolonged darkness may strongly affect those who live in the far north (see also Depression). Only the people living along the earth's equator are not affected by this cycle, since the equatorial zones receive about the same exposure to the sun throughout the year. The length of the days and nights does not change at the equator, so seasonal differences all but disappear.

Winter Solstice in Ancient Rome

According to the Julian calendar used by the ancient Romans, winter solstice fell on December 25. Although for most of their long history the Romans did not celebrate the winter solstice per se, two important Roman festivals fell on either side of this date. Saturnalia was celebrated from December 17 to December 23. Kalends, the new year festival, began on January 1 and lasted until January 5.

In the late third century A . D ., however, the Roman emperor Aurelian (c. 215-275) added a new celebration to the calendar, the Birth of the Invincible Sun. He chose December 25, the winter solstice, as the date for this festival honoring the sun god. In fact, by the late third century the solstice did not occur on December 25. A flaw in the design of the Julian calendar caused this error. The creators of the Julian calendar believed the year to be 365.25 days long. The actual length of the solar year is 365.242199 days. This tiny discrepancy caused the calendar to fall behind the actual sun cycle by one day every 128 years. In 46 B . C ., when the Julian calendar was established, the winter solstice really did occur on December 25. By the late third century winter solstice was arriving two and one-half days early. Nevertheless, the twenty-fifth had engraved itself in the minds of the populace as the date of the solstice, and so was retained as the date of the new solstice holiday (see also Old Christmas Day).

Winter Solstice and the Date of Christmas

In the middle of the fourth century, when Christian officials in Rome chose a date for the celebration of the Nativity, they, too, selected December 25. Most scholars believe that they chose this date in order to draw people away from the pagan holidays celebrated at that time of year. In fact, a document written by a Christian scribe later in that century explains that the authorities chose December 25 for the feast of the Nativity because people were already accustomed to celebrating on that date. Moreover, some Christian leaders found celebrating Jesus' birth at the time of the winter solstice especially appropriate as they considered him "the sun of righteousness" (Malachi 4:2) and the "light of the world"(John 8:12). With the new festival date in place, Christian leaders exhorted the populace to dedicate their midwinter devotions to the birth of Jesus rather than to the birth of the sun.

Winter Solstice and Other Ancient Celebrations

The people of Egypt used a slightly different calendar than did the Romans, one in which winter solstice fell on January 6. Egyptians also honored the sun god on the day of the winter solstice. Other Egyptian festivals that took place on January 6 included the birthday of the god Osiris and the birth of the god Aeon from his virgin mother, Kore. As early as the second century Egyptian Christians adopted January 6 as one of their feast days, too. They began to celebrate Epiphany on that day.

Some researchers speculate that the ancient peoples of northern Europe celebrated a festival called Yule around the time of the winter solstice. Other researchers disagree, however, arguing that the festival took place in November.

People who lived in close contact with the natural world and who did not possess modern astronomical knowledge may well have viewed the gradual shortening of the days and the cooling of the weather with apprehension. It is easy to understand why many of these ancient peoples honored the gods on the shortest day of the year and gave thanks for the return of the sun.

Contemporary Celebrations

In recent years, renewed interest in pagan or "earth" religions in the developed countries has prompted some people to begin celebrating the solstices again. Although we now understand the astronomical mechanisms behind this cycle in the earth's seasons, our lives still depend on these celestial maneuvers and the seasonal rhythms they create. The new solstice celebrations honor these life-giving processes with ceremony and festivity.

Further Reading

Baldovin, John. "Christmas." In Mircea Eliade, ed. The Encyclopedia of Reli-gion. Volume 3. New York: Macmillan, 1987. Bellenir, Karen, ed. Religious Holidays and Calendars. Second edition. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1998. Heinberg, Richard. Celebrate the Solstice. Wheaton, Ill.: Quest Books, 1993. Henes, Donna. Celestially Auspicious Occasions. New York: Berkley, 1996. Hutton, Ronald. The Stations of the Sun. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1996. Krupp, E. C. Beyond the Blue Horizon. New York: HarperCollins, 1991. Matthews, John, and Caitlin Matthews. The Winter Solstice. Wheaton, Ill.: Quest Books, 1998. Smith, C. "Christmas and Its Cycle." In New Catholic Encyclopedia. Volume 3. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967.
Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2003

Winter Solstice

Type of Holiday: Calendar/Seasonal, Ancient, Religious (Neopagan)
Date of Observation: December 21 or 22 in the Northern Hemisphere; June 21 or 22 in the Southern Hemisphere
Where Celebrated: Modern observances of the Winter Solstice are rare, but in ancient times it was observed throughout Europe, the British Isles, China, India, and Scandinavia
Symbols and Customs: Fire, Tree
Related Holidays: Beltane, Christmas, Imbolc, Lughnasa, Mabon, Samhain, Saturnalia, Soyaluna, Summer Solstice, Vernal Equinox


The word "solstice" comes from the Latin sol stetit, which means, "The sun stood still." In the Northern Hemisphere, the sun rises and sets further south on the horizon as the Winter Solstice approaches; it rises and sets further north as the SUMMER SOLSTICE approaches. For a period of about six days in late December and again in late June, the sun appears to rise and set in almost exactly the same place, giving the solstices their name.

The Winter Solstice marks the changing of the seasons, which people in all parts of the world have honored since ancient times. Many cultures divided the year into two seasons, summer and winter, and marked these points of the year at or near the summer and winter solstices, during which light and warmth began to increase and decrease, respectively. In pre-industrial times, humans survived through hunting, gathering, and agricultural practices, which depend on the natural cycle of seasons, according to the climate in the region of the world in which they lived. Thus, they created rituals to help ensure enough rain and sun in the spring and summer so crops would grow to fruition at harvest time, which was, in turn, duly celebrated. Vestiges of many of these ancient practices are thought to have survived in festivals still celebrated around seasonal themes.

The ancient Romans celebrated the Winter Solstice with a festival dedicated to Saturn, the god of agriculture (see SATURNALIA). When Emperor Constantine declared in the early fourth century that Christianity would be the new faith of the Roman Empire, the holiday was given an entirely new name and meaning: It became the birthday of Jesus of Nazareth, also known as Christ Mass or CHRISTMAS. Many familiar Yuletide customs-including the Christmas TREE and the Yule log (see FIRE )-actually have more to do with the Winter Solstice than with Christian doctrine. Even Santa Claus may originally have been a "solstice shaman" who officiated at the rites that took place on the Winter Solstice.

The ancient Chinese people believed that, at sunrise on the Winter Solstice, the yang or masculine principle was born into the world and began a six-month period of ascendancy. The Hindus, even though their calendar was based on lunar cycles, held festivals on the solstices and equinoxes as well. In northern India, for example, people greeted the Winter Solstice with a ceremonial clanging of bells and gongs to frighten off evil spirits. In the British Isles, the Druids celebrated the overthrow of the old god, Bran, by the new god, Bel, at the time of the December solstice.

The Winter Solstice was marked by the victory of light over darkness, the end of the cycle of death and decay and the beginning of a new cycle of light and growth. It has traditionally been a time for people to celebrate the gradual lengthening of the days and the regeneration of the earth.

During the 1960s the modern Neopagan and Wiccan movements emerged in Great Britain, the United States, and other English-speaking countries. They follow a nature-oriented religion loosely linked to ancient Celtic and other beliefs and inspired by old European folk practices. They celebrate eight sabbats, known as the eight spokes of the wheel of the year, which include SUMMER SOLSTICE, WINTER SOLSTICE , VERNAL EQUINOX, BELTANE, SAMHAIN, IMBOLC, LUGHNASA , and MABON.



The Winter Solstice was traditionally celebrated by lighting fires, symbolic of the sun, whose powers would increase as the days grew longer. The midwinter tradition of lighting a Yule log, for example, was an ancient Celtic fire ritual performed at the time of the December solstice. To bring the log indoors and burn it was symbolically to bring the blessing of the Sun God into the house. The log had to burn steadily without being extinguished or else bad luck would follow. Sometimes wine, cider, ale, or corn was sprinkled over the log before it was lit. In southern England, particularly Cornwall, the figure of a man was drawn in chalk on the log-perhaps a survival of what was originally a human sacrifice by fire. Part of the log was kept and used to ignite the new log a year later (see YULE LOG under CHRISTMAS EVE ).

The Yule candle lit in many churches at the beginning of the CHRISTMAS season is another example of how pagan solstice rites were gradually absorbed by Christianity. At one time only the head of the household was allowed to light or extinguish the flame, and an unused remnant was preserved as protection against thunder and lightning. In some countries, tallow from the Yule candle was rubbed on the farmer's plow to promote fertility in the fields. The electric candles that are displayed in so many American homes at Christmastime today reflect this ancient Celtic reverence for the candle as a symbol of light during the darkest time of the year.


Tree worship was central to the religious beliefs of the Teutons and the Druids, who built their temples in the woods. Trees were regarded as possessing spirits, and they were only cut down out of necessity. The ancient Norsemen and the people of Central Asia saw the tree as a symbol for the universe. Native Americans and the early people of India and China held similar ideas.

The Christmas tree probably derived from customs associated with pre-Christian tree worship. The Romans decorated evergreen trees and wreaths at the SATURNALIA , and an evergreen shrub called the "herb of the sun" was especially favored at the time of the Winter Solstice. Nowadays, the popularity of cut Christmas trees has been challenged by those whose concern for the environment favors the idea of planting a living tree around Christmas or the Winter Solstice (see CHRISTMAS TREE under CHRISTMAS).


Bellenir, Karen. Religious Holidays and Calendars. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2004. Christianson, Stephen G., and Jane M. Hatch. The American Book of Days. 4th ed. New York: H.W. Wilson, 2000. Gaer, Joseph. Holidays Around the World. Boston: Little, Brown, 1953. Gulevich, Tanya. Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations. 2nd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2003. Heinberg, Richard. Celebrate the Solstice: Honoring the Earth's Seasonal Rhythms through Festival and Ceremony. Wheaton, IL: Quest Books, 1993. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. King, John. The Celtic Druids' Year: Seasonal Cycles of the Ancient Celts. London: Blandford, 1995. MacDonald, Margaret R., ed. The Folklore of World Holidays. Detroit: Gale Research, 1992. Urlin, Ethel L. Festivals, Holy Days, and Saints' Days. 1915. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1992.


National Maritime Museum
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009

Winter Solstice

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

The shortest day of the year marks at the Winter Solstice, known to Wiccans as Yule (from the Norse Iul, meaning "wheel"). This is the time when the new Sun God is born to the Mother Goddess. It is one of the Lesser Sabbats of the year and falls at or about December 21.

The myth of the battle between the Holly King and the Oak King that occurs at the Winter Solstice and again at the Summer Solstice can be found throughout Europe. The Yule battle is won by the Oak King, who then rules as the days increase in length and the Wheel of the Year turns toward the summer. In the summer the Holly King wins. Remnants of this belief in the battle may be found in the traditional Yule Mummers play, performed across Britain and Europe (and now even in the United States) often in association with Morris dancing. In the play the light is represented by St. George and the darkness by a Turkish knight.

Part of the Pagan celebration is the gathering and displaying of evergreen boughs, showing the promise of new life in the coming spring. A Yule tree is erected in many areas to represent the phallus, or the spirit of fertility. From this came the Christian Christmas tree (gifts from the tree actually symbolize the semen springing from the phallus). Yule was established as the birth date of Mithra—with veneration for the sun—and was then adopted by the New Religion (within a few days) to mark the birth of the "Son" Jesus.

A Yule log is burned on the balefire at this time. Obtained from the land of the covenstead, the log is ceremoniously carried in and placed in the fireplace (or the balefire, if at the sabbat site) with just one end in the fire. Lit from the remnants of the previous year's Yule log, it is then inched forward as it burns. The end of a fresh Yule log from that fire is then saved and carefully kept until the following year and is used to start that year's fire. The Yule log supposedly protected the house from fire and lightning throughout the year. The balefire itself was burned to give life to the sun on its journey. Ashes from the Yule fire were mixed with cow manure and sprinkled over the fields as a symbolic aid to fertility, insuring new life and a fertile spring.

The Witch Book: The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft, Wicca, and Neo-paganism © 2002 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.

winter solstice

[′win·tər ′säl·stəs]
The sun's position on the ecliptic (about December 22). Also known as first point of Capricorn.
The date (December 22) when the greatest southern declination of the sun occurs.
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Scientific & Technical Terms, 6E, Copyright © 2003 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.

winter solstice

i. The point on the ecliptic occupied by the sun at the maximum southerly declination. Sometimes called the December solstice or the first point of Capricornus. See first point of Capricornus.
ii. The instant at which the sun reaches the point of maximum southerly declination, on or about December 21. A solstice which occurs when the position of the earth is at the perihelion or when it is nearest to the sun but its north pole is inclined away from the sun. It occurs when there is winter in the Northern Hemisphere and summer in the Southern Hemisphere.
An Illustrated Dictionary of Aviation Copyright © 2005 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc. All rights reserved

Winter Solstice

June 21-22 (Southern Hemisphere); December21-22 (Northern Hemisphere)
This is the shortest day of the year, respectively in each hemisphere, when the sun has reached its furthest point from the equator. It also marks the first day of winter.
The winter solstice has played an important role in art, literature, mythology, and religion. There were many pre-Christian seasonal traditions marking the winter solstice, and huge bonfires were an integral part of these ancient solar rites. Although winter was regarded as the season of dormancy, darkness, and cold, the gradual lengthening of the days after the winter solstice brought on a more festive mood. To many peoples this return of the light was cause for celebration that the cycle of nature was continuing.
See also Dongji; Haloa; Inti Raymi Fiesta; Juul, Feast of; Soyaluna; Toji; Yule
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AmerBkDays-2000, p. 842
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EncyChristmas-2003, p. 828
FestSaintDays-1915, p. 4
FolkWrldHol-1999, p. 710
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Celebrated in: China

Winter Solstice (China)
December 23
The Chinese honor the god T'ien at the Winter Solstice. According to tradition, this is the day on which the ancient emperors of China would present themselves before T'ien at the Forbidden City in the capital of Beijing to offer sacrifices. Today, people commemorate the longest night of the year by visiting temples and serving feasts in their homes to honor deceased family members.
The imperial winter solstice ceremonies were closed to all foreigners and almost all Chinese. When the monarchy ended in 1912, the imperial rites were discontinued. Nevertheless, the people of Hong Kong still observe the winter solstice by taking a day off to feast with their families and present offerings to their ancestors.
FolkWrldHol-1999, p. 710
RelHolCal-2004, p. 235

Celebrated in: China

Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.