The Weird, Wonderful Winter Solstice

The Winter Solstice is upon us at last!

Despite the fact that, in many parts of the world, it has been bitterly cold, gray, and even snowy for weeks already, indeed the first official day of Winter was does not occur until late December. (In 2016, it was in fact yesterday, Wednesday December 21st.)

What’s so special about the Winter Solstice? Why, lots of things. Lots of things indeed! Let’s discuss a few of them, because it would be weird to write an article like this otherwise.

night

Darkness And Distance

For those of you living in the Northern Hemisphere, it is on the occasion of the solstice that you will find yourself dealing with as much darkness as you’ll see all year. This is based on the tilt of the earth’s axis, but contrary to popular misconception, it’s not related to the earth’s physical distance from the sun. (In fact, the planet is on the Perihelion portion of the orbit in the early winter, and is actually closer to the sun that at other times of the year.) Most Americans will see less than nine and a half hours of sunlight on the solstice day, also known as nearly fourteen hours of darkness. But don’t take it too hard, folks up closer to the Arctic Circle don’t see any direct sunlight for weeks during the winter.

winter sun

The Sun Stands Still

Actually, it doesn’t. But on the day of the Winter Solstice, it rather looks like the sun remains unmoving there on the horizon, eschewing its standard overhead arc. Thus the word “solstice,” which is derived from the Latin word solstitium, which translated to “sun stands still.” Later science debunked the notion of an immobile winter sun, but the name stuck.

yule

The Real Yule

You might think that the yule log you burn (or at least talk about burning) each holiday season is a classic Christmas tradition, but not so much. Yule was originally a winter festival celebrated by pre-Christian Germanic tribes and, quite likely, by Norsemen alike. The etymology of the word is unclear, though variations seem to pop up in the stories of disparate groups spread across early Europe. What’s certain, though, is that the term referred to a celebration held on or near the darkest day of the year and originally had nothing to do with Christianity.

stonehenge

A Pagan Party Crashed

Whether you speak to of pagans, druids, witches, or any other of the alternative spiritualities/religions that celebrate the Winter Solstice as an important holiday, you’re going to hear some ire directed toward Christianity when the topic comes up. That’s because the forebears of these modern alternative types had been celebrating the solstice for centuries (if not millennia) before Christianized Rome decided to co-opt the dark winter season and set 12/25 as the date on which they would celebrate the birth of Jesus. No one knows when Jesus was born (this begs the question of historicity, but we’ll leave that alone for now), but it’s pretty damn certain it was not on December 25th. But as that was a time so many “heathens” were already celebrating, the church stuck the date there as a way to help usher people over into the Believer column. If you want to have some pagan fun at the next Winter Solstice, by the way, Stonehenge is the place to be.