Let’s start with the science. The Earth is actually nearer the sun in January than it is in June — by three million miles. Pretty much irrelevant to our planet. What causes the seasons is something completely different. The Earth leans slightly on its axis like a spinning top frozen in one off-kilter position. Astronomers have even pinpointed the precise angle of the tilt. It’s 23 degrees and 27 minutes off the perpendicular to the plane of orbit. This planetary pose is what causes all the variety of our climate; all the drama and poetry of our seasons, since it determines how many hours and minutes each hemisphere receives precious sunlight.
Most of us have known something about this since grade school. What fascinates me about it is how we figured it out in the first place, especially before the advent of satellites and space travel. I haven’t studied astronomy enough to understand fully how we came to know this. The axis is, after all, an imaginary line. But here’s an eloquent perspective on that question from a Candlegrove visitor. Pretty basic stuff.
Such precision we have about it now! Winter solstice is when…
…because of the earth’s tilt, your hemisphere is leaning farthest away from the sun, and therefore:
The daylight is the shortest.
The sun has its lowest arc in the sky.
When it’s winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, the sun is directly overhead at noon only along the Tropic of Capricorn, on which lie such places as Sao Paulo, Brazil, southern Madagascar, and areas north of Brisbane, Australia.
Celebrated among the ancients as a turning point. No one’s really sure how long ago humans recognized the winter solstice and began heralding it as a turning point — the day that marks the return of the sun. One delightful little book written in 1948, 4,000 Years of Christmas, puts its theory right up in the title. The Mesopotamians were first, it claims, with a 12-day festival of renewal, designed to help the god Marduk tame the monsters of chaos for one more year.
It’s a charming theory. But who knows how accurate it is? Cultural anthropology has advanced a lot in the last 50 years!
Many, many cultures the world over perform solstice ceremonies. At their root: an ancient fear that the failing light would never return unless humans intervened with anxious vigil or antic celebration. Solstice celebrations: universal and perhaps much older than we know.
There’s much new scholarship about Neolithic peoples and their amazing culture. For example, it now looks as though writing is much more ancient than we earlier thought — as much as 10,000 years old.
Neolithic peoples were the first farmers. Their lives were intimately tied to the seasons and the cycle of harvest. I’m certain they were attuned to the turning skies.
Scholars haven’t yet found proof that these peoples had the skill to pinpoint a celestial event like solstice. Earliest markers of time that we’ve found from these ancient peoples are notches carved into bone that appear to count the cycles of the moon. But perhaps they watched the movement of the sun as well as the moon, and perhaps they celebrated it — with fertility rites, with fire festivals, with offerings and prayers to their gods and goddesses.
And perhaps, our impulse to hold onto certain traditions today — candles, evergreens, feasting and generosity — are echoes of a past that extends many thousands of years further than we ever before imagined.
“Shall we liken Christmas to the web in a loom? There are many weavers, who work into the pattern the experience of their lives. When one generation goes, another comes to take up the weft where it has been dropped. The pattern changes as the mind changes, yet never begins quite anew. At first, we are not sure that we discern the pattern, but at last we see that, unknown to the weavers themselves, something has taken shape before our eyes, and that they have made something very beautiful, something which compels our understanding.”
–Earl W. Count, 4,000 Years of Christmas
ANCIENT SOLSTICE ARCHITECTURES
There were huge efforts to observe the solstices.
An utterly astounding array of ancient cultures built their greatest architectures — tombs, temples, cairns and sacred observatories — so that they aligned with the solstices and equinoxes. Many of us know that Stonehenge is a perfect marker of both solstices.
But not so many people are familiar with Newgrange, a beautiful megalithic site in Ireland. This huge circular stone structure is estimated to be 5,000 years old, older by centuries than Stonehenge, older than the Egyptian pyramids! It was built to receive a shaft of sunlight deep into its central chamber at dawn on winter solstice.
The light illuminates a stone basin below intricate carvings — spirals, eye shapes, solar discs. Although not much is known about how Newgrange was used by its builders, marking the solstice was obviously of tremendous spiritual import to them. Here’s more on this incredible ancient site.
Maeshowe, on the Orkney Islands north of Scotland, shares a similar trait, admitting the winter solstice setting sun. It is hailed as “one of the greatest architectural achievements of the prehistoric peoples of Scotland.” For more information about Maeshowe or here for live webcam.
Hundreds of other megalithic structures throughout Europe are oriented to the solstices and the equinoxes. The blossoming field of archaeoastronomy studies such sacred sites in the Americas, Asia, Indonesia, and the Middle East. Recent research into the medieval Great Zimbabwe in sub-Saharan Africa (also known as the “African Stonehenge”) indicates a similar purpose. In North America, one of the most famous such sites is the Sun Dagger of Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, built a thousand years ago by the Chacoans, ancestors of the Pueblo people. Even cultures that followed a moon-based calendar seemed also to understand the importance of these sun-facing seasonal turning points.
The book, The Sun in the Church: Cathedrals as Solar Observatories, reveals that many medieval Catholic churches were also built as solar observatories. The church, once again reinforcing the close ties between religious celebration and seasonal passages, needed astronomy to predict the date of Easter. And so observatories were built into cathedrals and churches throughout Europe. Typically, a small hole in the roof admitted a beam of sunlight, which would trace a path along the floor. The path, called the meridian line, was often marked by inlays and zodiacal motifs. The position at noon throughout the year, including the extremes of the solstices, was also carefully marked.
A linguistic puzzle.
The rebirth of the sun.
The birth of the Son.
Christmas was transplanted onto winter solstice some 1,600 years ago, centuries before the English language emerged from its Germanic roots. Is that why we came to express these two ideas in words that sound so similar?
A family fertility ritual from Romania.
You may have heard of apple wassailing, the medieval winter festival custom of blessing the apple trees with songs, dances, decorations and a drink of cider to ensure their fertility. Here’s another, more obscure tradition that most certainly predates Christmas, and was probably once a solstice ritual, because it is so linked to the themes of nature’s rebirth and fertility. In Romania, there’s a traditional Christmas confection called a turta. It is made of many layers of pastry dough, filled with melted sugar or honey, ground walnuts, or hemp seed.
In this tradition, with the making of the cake families enact a lovely little ceremony to assure the fruitfulness of their orchard come spring. When the wife is in the midst of kneading the dough, she follows her husband into the wintry garden. The man goes from barren tree to tree, threatening to cut each one down. Each time, the wife urges that he spare the tree by saying:
“Oh no, I am sure that this tree will be as heavy with fruit next spring as my fingers are with dough this day.”
Winter solstice in many cultures.
Winter solstice was overlaid with Christmas, and the observance of Christmas spread throughout the globe. Along the way, we lost some of the deep connection of our celebrations to a fundamental seasonal, hemispheric event. Many people–of many beliefs–are looking to regain that connection now.
I gain inspiration from the universality of the ancient idea–winter solstice celebrations aren’t just an invention of the ancient Europeans.
Native Americans had winter solstice rites. The sun images at right are from rock paintings of the Chumash, who occupied coastal California for thousands of years before the Europeans arrived. Solstices were tremendously important to them, and the winter solstice celebration lasted several days.
In Iran, there is the observance of Yalda, in which families kept vigil through the night and fires burned brightly to help the sun (and Goodness) battle darkness (thought evil).
Winter solstice celebrations are also part of the cultural heritage of Pakistan and Tibet. And in China, even though the calendar is based on the moon, the day of winter solstice is called Dong Zhi, “The Arrival of Winter.” The cold of winter made an excellent excuse for a feast, so that’s how the Chinese observed it, with Ju Dong, “doing the winter.”
I’m certain there are other examples…I’m just starting to collect them. Candlegrove visitors have told me of celebrations among the Hopi and Iranians, among others. Know of any others you’d like to share?
And what of Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights that occurs around this time every year? Is it related to other celebrations of the season?
The placement of Hanukkah is tied to both the lunar and solar calendars. It begins on the 25th of Kislev, three days before the new moon closest to the Winter Solstice. It commemorates an historic event — the Maccabees’ victory over the Greeks and the rededication of the temple at Jerusalem. But the form of this celebration, a Festival of Lights (with candles at the heart of the ritual), makes Hanukkah wonderfully compatible with other celebrations at this time of year. As a symbolic celebration of growing light and as a commemoration of spiritual rebirth, it also seems closely related to other observances.
The rising of the sun
And the running of the deer,
The playing of the merry organ,
Sweet singing in the choir.
Now, where do you suppose the first couple of lines of this carol came from? A Candlegrove visitor shares a clue about earlier versions of this carol.
There is a whole series of medieval English carols on the subject of the rivalry between the holly and the ivy. In many of them, the holly and ivy symbolized male and female, and the songs narrated their often rowdy vying for mastery in the forest or in the house.
And the next time you find yourself in a store, getting annoyed at incessant repetitions of “the Carol of the Bells,” consider this: it’s a remnant of the pre-Christian winter solstice celebration in the Ukraine. The Ukrainian carol called “Shchedryk” has the same melody as the Carol of the Bells, but different English words. The word “Shchedryk” means the “Generous One”. It refers to the god of generosity, the Dazh Boh – the Giver God, which is the sun. I learned this fascinating fact from a Candlegrove visitor (a beautiful, thoughtful essay, don’t miss it!).
A time of magic.
In many cultures, customs practiced at Christmas go back to pre-Christian times. Many involve divination–foretelling the future at a magic time: the season turning of solstice.
In Russia, there’s a Christmas divination that involves candles. A girl would sit in a darkened room, with two lighted candles and two mirrors, pointed so that one reflects the candlelight into the other. The viewer would seek the seventh reflection, then look until her future would be seen.
The early Germans built a stone altar to Hertha, or Bertha, goddess of domesticity and the home, during winter solstice. With a fire of fir boughs stoked on the altar, Hertha was able to descend through the smoke and guide those who were wise in Saga lore to foretell the fortunes of those at the feast.
In Spain, there’s an old custom that is a holdover from Roman days. The urn of fate is a large bowl containing slips of paper on which are written all the names of those at a family get-togehter. The slips of paper are drawn out two at a time. Those whose names are so joined are to be devoted friends for the year. Apparently, there’s often a little finagling to help matchmaking along, as well.
In Scandinavia, some families place all their shoes together, as this will cause them to live in harmony throughout the year.
And in many, many cultures, it’s considered bad luck for a fire or a candle to go out on Christmas Day. So keep those candles burning!
Winter solstice this year.
Winter solstice for 2015 will occur in North America on December 21. The precise time depends on your time zone. In CST, it will be 22:48; in EST, 11:48PM. Planning for upcoming seasons? Click here for time tables through 2020. Here is the Astronomical Information Center that has calculations for your time zone.