Early this morning, thousands of druids and pagans met at Stonehenge to celebrate the sunrise after the longest night of 2015. This is because today is the shortest day of the year: the Northern Hemisphere’s winter solstice. Stonehenge is a key location for the solstice because its massive rocks are aligned with the winter solstice sunset, assembled by different tribal groups in several stages between 2500 and 1500 BC. Those peoples and many others in the British Isles used the time to feast before winter, slaughtering their animals and fermenting beer and wine.
The winter solstice is a very real astronomical phenomenon. Today, Earth’s axis is tilted directly away from the sun in the Northern Hemisphere, with all 23.5 degrees of tilt in shadow. For this reason, parts of the Arctic will remain dark for the whole day, and our day in the Northern Hemisphere will last only about eight hours. It is also important to note that this makes it midsummer in the Southern Hemisphere; the height of winter occurs there during what we call the summer solstice, when the Northern side of Earth’s axis is tilted directly toward the sun. From now until then, our days will get progressively longer again rather than shorter.
Stonehenge is just one example of the cross-cultural, transcontinental history of winter solstice celebrations. Because the day marks the reversal of the lengthening of nights and the shortening of days, it has historically been viewed as a reversal of the sun and a rebirth of the sun god, but different gods are honored in different cultures. For instance, the Ancient Incan festival Santo Tomas honored the Incan sun god Inti; participants would swing off a 50-foot pole, hoping to land on their feet and please him so he would make the days grow longer. Similarly, Saturnalia in Ancient Rome was a weeklong winter festival of feasting, gift giving, gambling, and slave-master role reversals in honor of the Roman deity Saturn. And the Feast of Juul in pre-Christian Scandinavia involved burning the Yule Log as a tribute to the Norse god Thor.
One widespread tradition in Asia and the Middle East is Yalda. It originated with the Zoroastrians of Ancient Persia, who feared the long night and advised people to stay awake with family and friends to ward off evil. Although the religious significance of the occasion has largely been lost, the tradition of Yalda continues today in Iran as well as many nearby countries, such as Afghanistan and India. Families and friends gather to eat fruits and nuts, drink, and read poetry.
Yalda is one of many traditions that are still very much alive. Others include the Chinese Dōngzhì Festival and the Shálako festival, a series of ceremonies conducted by the Zuni Native American tribe of New Mexico. Even ancient traditions such as the Feast of Juul and Santo Tomas continue today in different forms; the burning of the Yule log has been integrated into Christian tradition, and Santo Tomas is still being celebrated by the Quecia Indians in Cusco, Peru. And Stonehenge, of course, will continue to bear witness to the Druid tradition of Alban Arthan, which honors Arthur Pendragon and the Great Bear constellation.
Whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukah, Kwanzaa, the Chinese New Year, Pancha Ganapati, Yalda, or something else entirely, the way you spend your holidays probably has some grounding in ancient winter solstice traditions. And even if it doesn’t, consider stepping outside this evening to watch the sun set on the shortest day of the year. After all, for the first time in six months, tomorrow is astronomically guaranteed to be a brighter day.