The nights have drawn in and the sun seems to be shying away – winter solstice is upon us. Many of us spend the month of December in anticipation of Christmas, decorating our tree and stringing lights around our homes, but how often do we stop and consider the origins of the celebrations of this time of year?
Midwinter celebrations are one of the oldest festivals in the world, dating back tens of thousands of years from our pagan ancestry. The winter solstice itself occurs on the shortest day and longest night in the northern hemisphere (usually 21st December) but some of us like to celebrate midwinter throughout the whole month.
I always associate December with hunkering down and hibernating, spending time sat around the fire, wrapped in blankets, taking note of the year which has happened behind us. Midwinter is the perfect time opportunity to slow down, surrounding ourselves with light in the forms of candles and fires, and making ourselves cosy in the places that we find safe and comforting. After a troubling year, the solstice is also a good time for reflection and thinking ahead, embracing the hope that the new year brings.
Winter solstice isn’t just the shortest day – it’s also the turning point when the days begin to lengthen, and we begin the long haul towards spring. Celebrations originated from ancient people who worshipped the sun; the seasons and weather were an important factor in their survival, so it makes sense that they celebrated when the shortest day had passed.
Winter festivities can be traced back to our northern neighbours: the Scandinavians. The word ‘Yule’ that we carelessly scribe on Christmas cards is the English term for the Nordic ‘Juul’ – an ancient celebration that was observed across Britain before the arrival of Christianity. Yule celebrations included burning the yule log, telling folk stories, and drinking sweet ale. Mistletoe would be cut from the oak trees and given as a blessing, its winter fruit being a symbol of life during the darkest month. When we look back at the customs that our ancestors observed (and many of those living in the Nordic countries still celebrate today), it’s not hard to see where our Christmas celebrations evolved from.
All around the northern hemisphere, different cultures celebrate midwinter. In Britain, the most famous observations of the solstice are the dawn celebrations at Stonehenge, where druids and pagans gather to chant, dance and sing at sunrise. Other cultures may extend the festivities or celebrate on a different day, but there are many similarities to the customs observed.
Swedes celebrate St Lucia’s Day on December 13th (the longest day of the year according to the Julian calendar) with processions of candles where one girl is chosen to wear a crown of candles and serve hot drinks and baked treats. This is the start of the Yule season, where traditions include bringing pine trees into the home, drinking mulled wine, burning fires and giving gifts (sound familiar?)
Many towns in Europe and North America celebrate some sort of lantern festival at this time of year, but perhaps none is more famous than Vancouver’s Winter Solstice Lantern Festival. On the night of the solstice, thousands of people parade through the city with creative paper lanterns, with visitors also enjoying art installations, traditional folk tales and a Labyrinth of Light.
It isn’t just western cultures that celebrate midwinter, however. Lohri is the celebration of the end of winter in northern India, originally held on the solstice but now taking place on January 13th. Huge bonfires are lit and traditional treats such as popcorn and peanuts are thrown into the flames as an offering to the sun gods. Iran also celebrates this time of year with Yalda Night, a traditional celebration on the shortest day of the year that involves telling stories while eating the last fruits of the summer.
You don’t have to participate in a large celebration to recognise the winter solstice, especially not during this strange year when public gatherings are so restricted. There are many ways to mark the occasion at home. Enjoy traditional delicacies such as mulled wine (or glögg, as it is called across the Nordic countries) and yule log (named after the huge logs that were ceremonially burned). Light a fire in your hearth, burn candles or string fairy lights on your tree and around your home. Slow down, and retreat into the cosy nest of your living room.
Take a moment to appreciate and understand the origins of our Christmas traditions.