The winter solstice begins Thursday, December 22 at 12:30 am EST. The start of winter, the winter solstice, is the shortest day of the year, when the Sun reaches its most southern point in the sky at local noon. After this date, the days start getting longer.
Winter inspires both joy and woe. Some people can't wait for the cooler weather, snow, skiing and ice skating, curling up by a fire, and the holiday spirit. Other people dislike the frigid temperatures, blizzards, and wild weather.
The word solstice comes from the Latin words "sun" and "to stop", due to the fact that the Sun seems to stop in the sky. The Sun is directly overhead at "high-noon" on Winter Solstice at the latitude called the Tropic of Capricorn. In the Northern Hemisphere, the solstice days are the days with the fewest hours of sunlight during the whole year.
The winter solstice has historically been a day for celebration. This tradition started with an ancient fear that the fading light would never return unless humans kept watch and had a huge celebration. Many cultures and societies have soltice celebrations. Here are some of the craziest highlights!
In ancient Greee, the winter solstice celebration was called Lenaea (Festival of the wild women). According to Greek myth, a man representing the harvest god Dionysos was sacrificed and then eaten by nine women! It was believed that Dionysos would be reborn as a baby when the ritual was complete. Eventually a goat was used as a sacrifice in place of the human for the ritual.
Huge feasts were held in ancient Rome and houses and halls were decorated with boughs of evergreen trees. Roman masters feasted with slaves and slaves were also allowed to do and say pretty much what they wanted, which was very different than what their everyday lives were like. Because this was such an important day, schools were closed, the army took a day of rest and no criminals were executed.
The return of the light is the most prominent feature of most midwinter festivals. In Sweden on St. Lucy’s Day, young girls don white dresses and a wreath of candles and awaken their families with cakes and song. Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, is celebrated by lighting candles over a span of eight days. The Christian custom of the Advent wreath, with its four candles, one lit each of the Sundays before Christmas, is another way of re-kindling the light.
The Christmas candle, a large candle of red or some other bright color decorated with holly or other evergreens, was at one time a popular custom throughout Great Britain, Ireland and Scandinavia. One person, usually the eldest or the head of the household, is designated as the lightbringer. She lights the candle for the first time on Christmas Eve before the festive supper and during each of the remaining evenings of the Twelve Days of Christmas. To extinguish the candle, she snuffs it with tongs rather than blowing it out, since that would blow the luck away. The candle sheds a blessing on the household and so is protected from accidental quenching. It seems likely that the candle also represented the coming year, just as the weather of each of the twelve days of Christmas foretell the weather of the corresponding month. It had protective or fertilizing powers and was kept as a charm. In Denmark, during a lightning storm, the remnant would be brought out and lit to protect the household.
Similar customs once surrounded the Yule log. The Yule log must never be bought but should be received as a gift, found or taken from you own property. Often the log to be burned at midwinter was chosen early in the year and set aside.
Tradition varies about the type of wood to be used. Oak logs were popular in the north of England, birch in Scotland and ash in Cornwall and Devon. Ash is the only wood that burns freely when green and the world-tree, Yggdrasil, in the Nordic tradition was an ash-tree. It is important that the Yule log be the biggest and greenest log available since the Christmas festivities will last only as long as the Yule log burns.
In some parts of the Scottish highlands, the head of the household finds a withered stump and carves it into the likeness of an old woman, the Cailleach Nollaich or Christmas Old Wife, a sinister being representing the evils of winter and death. She's the goddess of winter, the hag of night, the old one who brings death. Burning her drives away the winter and protects the occupants of the household from death.
These are only a few of the old celebrations. Today there are still many places that have solstice celebrations and they all have one thing in common - the welcoming the light!
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