Winter Solstice: Celebrations of the Darkest Day of the Year

All, Stories
Snow falls over a paved walking trail. Trees line both sides of the trail.
West Trail at Winton Woods

These are dark times – literally! The winter solstice is upon us, in fact, it’s on December 21! The winter solstice is when we have our longest night of the year. It has been celebrated for thousands of years by cultures all over the world, and many still celebrate it today. You may be wondering why we would celebrate the darkest time of the year, and what the celebrations have looked like? Read on to learn more!

First, you may be wondering exactly why the night is so long on the winter solstice. As the earth revolves around the sun over the course of a year, the poles may be tilted towards or away from the sun. When the north or south pole is tilted toward the sun, that hemisphere experiences summer. When the pole is tilted away, that hemisphere is in winter. The winter solstice is the day in which the pole is tilted furthest away from the sun, making the sun appear very low in the sky, and causing the shortest day (and longest night) of the year. As the winter solstice approaches, the sun looks lower and lower, and the daylight hours get shorter and shorter. In the Northern Hemisphere we experience our darkest days in December. The winter solstice this year occurs on December 21, which also marks the astronomical beginning of winter in the Northern Hemisphere.

Winter Solstice Folklore

So why do so many cultures celebrate this dark time of year? One reason is that the darkest days are followed by days that get longer and brighter, meaning we can look forward to the return of warm seasons. One folktale that highlights this inspired by this transition between dark and light is the story of the Oak King and the Holly King. The story goes that each year the Oak King (the spirit of summer) and the Holly King (the spirit of winter) continuously battle for dominance. On the night of the Summer Solstice, the Holly King defeats the Oak King and ushers in the season of dark and cold, but on the night of the Winter Solstice, the Oak King regains the throne bringing the promise of light, warmth and a bountiful harvest – certainly something to be thankful for!

Keeping Spirits High

Another reason that the winter solstice is so broadly celebrated is that feasts, parties and festivals of light help us keep our spirits high through the darkest time of the year. Many people experience some form of “winter blues” or even seasonal depression (Seasonal Affective Disorder). Perhaps our winter celebrations help keep our moods lifted, but for our ancestors, they would have been even more important. They had to contend with dangerous cold and sometimes scarcity of food, without the benefits that modern society affords. They may have used celebrations and rituals to gain a sense of control, to give thanks for what they had, to strengthen community and for literal light and warmth.

Yuletide Greetings

What were these winter solstice celebrations like? One great example of a traditional solstice celebration is the Yuletide. This term is now synonymous with Christmas, but the word Yule comes from the Norse word “Jól,” which referred to the solstice and the god, Odin. The Yule was celebrated for 12 days, from the winter solstice into the new year. Homes were decorated with sprigs of holly, and trees were decorated with gifts to encourage new growth in spring. The 12 days of Yule were celebrated with feasts, gift-giving, bonfires and toasts. Children carried gifts from home to home and left out their shoes on the eve of the solstice with sugar and hay for Odin’s horses. And of course, there was the Yule log. Today we may simply think of the Yule log as a delicious cake decorated like a log, but traditionally, it was an actual log. One end of a large log would be placed in the fire and pushed slowly further in as it burned over the course of the 12 days. The light of the fire symbolized the returning sun. Then, some ashes from the Yule log would be scattered in the garden for luck.

The Lord of Saturnalia

Chester Saturnalia Parade celebrating the winter solstice.
Chester Saturnalia Parade (Photo: Donald Judge/CC BY 2.0)

Another well-known solstice celebration is Saturnalia. This was the ancient Roman festival in honor of Saturn – the god of time, wealth, abundance, and agriculture. During this week-long festival in mid-December, people would decorate their homes with wreaths and greenery, host feasts, give gifts, and dance and sing. In the early days of Saturnalia, the people would conduct a sacrifice at the temple, followed by a wild feast that included drinking and gambling. Later, though, the sacrifice was merely symbolic. Gifts often included wax figures which likely symbolized the sacrifices of the past, and candles which symbolized the sun’s light. Saturnalia festivities also included hiding a coin in a cake. Whoever found the coin would be dubbed “the Lord of Saturnalia” and would be expected to behave chaotically and mischievously during the celebrations. Nobody worked during this time, and some families engaged in role reversals, where servants sat at the head of the table and their employers served them.

Our modern winter holiday traditions may or may not be as wild as Saturnalia, and you may not burn one huge log for 12 days, but you may see some other aspects of solstice traditions that seem very familiar. When we consider the past influences on our beloved traditions, we may get a deeper appreciation of them, and a richer understanding of ourselves. This year, on the darkest day, may you find bright spots to enjoy, and look forward to warmer days ahead!

Lisa Salehpour
Nature Interpreter, Sharon Woods