In Britain and the rest of the Northern Hemisphere, the winter solstice occurs on or around December 21st and marks the beginning of the winter season with the shortest day of the year. This means that on that day, the least amount of daylight appears between sunrise and sunset. The term solstice means “sun stands still.”
The winter solstice has been celebrated since ancient times. Throughout history this seasonal milestone has created spiritual and cultural traditions to celebrate the rebirth of sunlight after the darkest period of the year.
Traditional solstice celebrations exist in many cultures. One of the oldest in recorded history is the Roman feast of Saturnalia, which celebrated the anniversary of the founding of the Temple of the God Saturn. This was a weeklong feast which started about 17th December, and included the observance of the winter solstice. The festivities began with a public sacrifice to Saturn and a banquet, followed by private festivities that included giving gifts and parties.
The Romans also celebrated the lengthening of days after the winter solstice by paying homage to Mithras, an ancient Persian god of light. Popular with Roman soldiers, the figure of Mithras was created by the god Ahura-Mazda, to save the world. This was not Mithras’ only similarity to Jesus, for Mithras was said to have been born of a virgin on December 25. Sometimes the day to celebrate Mithras was referred to as Dies Natalis Solis Invicit – ‘the birthday of the unconquered sun’.
It wasn’t just the Ancient Romans who had winter solstice festivals. The Greeks celebrated Brumalia, a winter holiday associated with the god Dionysus and wine. By the time of the winter Brumalia, the wine was ready to be poured into jars for drinking. Although a Greek holiday, the name Brumalia is Latin, and means ‘Winter Solstice’.
During ancient times Christian leaders endeavoured to attract pagans to their faith by adding Christian meaning to the existing winter festivals. Many scholars believe that these early winter solstice celebrations gave rise to Christmas, as people throughout history have traditionally compared the rebirth of the sun after winter with the birth of the son of God.
Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.