In astronomy, the winter solstice is the moment when the earth is at a point in its orbit where one hemisphere is most inclined away from the sun. This causes the sun to appear at its farthest below the celestial equator when viewed from earth. Solstice is a Latin borrowing and means "sun stand", referring to the appearance that the sun's noontime elevation change stops its progress, either northerly or southerly. The day of the winter solstice is the shortest day and the longest night of the year.
In the northern hemisphere, the winter solstice usually falls on December 21/December 22, which is the southern hemisphere's summer solstice. At this time, the sun appears over the Tropic of Capricorn, roughly 23.5 degrees South of the earth's equator. In the southern hemisphere, winter solstice falls on June 21/June 22, which is the northern hemisphere's summer solstice. At this time, the sun appears over the Tropic of Cancer.
Since the winter solstice, summer solstice, vernal equinox, and autumnal equinox were probably observed for the first time by people in the northern hemisphere, these naming conventions originally corresponded to the northern hemisphere's seasons. In most reckonings, the winter solstice is midwinter. In Ireland's calendar, the solstices and equinoxes all occur at about midpoint in each season. For example, winter begins on November 1, and ends on January 31.
No one is 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 to the northern hemisphere.
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.
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 - which would mean that they were attuned to the movement of celestial objects and seasons. Scholars have not as yet found proof, though, that these peoples had the skill to pinpoint a celestial event like a solstice. Earliest markers of time, 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.
Most ancient cultures built Astronomical Observatories - tombs, temples, cairns among others, to align with the solstices and equinoxes.
Stunning Astronomical Alignment Found at Peru Pyramid Live Science - May 6, 2013
An ancient astronomical alignment in southern Peru has been discovered by researchers between a pyramid, two stone lines and the setting sun during the winter solstice. During the solstice, hundreds of years ago, the three would have lined up to frame the pyramid in light. The two stone lines, called geoglyphs, are located about 1.2 miles (2 kilometers) east-southeast from the pyramid. They run for about 1,640 feet (500 meters), and researchers say the lines were "positioned in such a way as to frame the pyramid as one descended down the valley from the highlands."
Stunning astronomical alignment found at Peru pyramid MSNBC - May 6, 2013
An ancient astronomical alignment in southern Peru has been discovered by researchers between a pyramid, two stone lines and the setting sun during the winter solstice. During the solstice, hundreds of years ago, the three would have lined up to frame the pyramid in light.
The passage and chamber of Newgrange are illuminated by the winter solstice sunrise. A shaft of sunlight shines through the roof box over the entrance and penetrates the passage to light up the chamber. The dramatic event lasts for 17 minutes at dawn from the 19th to the 23rd of December. 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 importance to them.
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.
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 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.
The winter solstice is the time when the Germanic festival of Yule was celebrated; it is celebrated today as a Neopagan Sabbat. Christmas was transplanted into winter solstice about 1,600 years ago, centuries before the English language emerged from its Germanic roots.
Yule is the time of greatest darkness and the longest night of the year. The Winter Solstice had been associated with the birth of a "Divine King" long before the rise of Christianity. Since the Sun is considered to represent the Male Divinity in many Pagan Traditions, this time is celebrated as the "return of the Sun God" where He is reborn of the Goddess.
Many cultures celebrate or celebrated a holiday near (within a few days) the winter solstice; examples of these include Yalda, Saturnalia, Christmas, Karachun, Hanukkah, Festivus, Kwanzaa, and Human Light. In her fiction, Ursula K. Le Guin calls the solstice celebration "The Festival of Sun Return".
Through an interesting coincidence in the Earth's orbit, the northern hemisphere's winter occurs when the sun is actually closest to the Earth. Conversely, the northern summer is when the sun is farthest from the Earth. But the distance from the sun doesn't affect the seasons on Earth to a measurable amount, since Earth's elliptical orbit is the closest to circular of all of the planets in the solar system. In general it's the angle of the sun's rays and the number of hours of light per day that actually affects the seasons in most regions on the planet.
Native Americans have 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." In the Chinese calendar, the winter solstice is called "winter's extreme" and is traditionally regarded as one of the year's most important Jieqis, comparable to Chinese New Year.
The placement of Hanukah 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.
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.
For ancient Germanic and Celtic people, the impulse to celebrate solstice was the same as for their neighbors to the south -- a celebration of the cycle of nature and a reaffirmation of the continuation of life. But the style and substance of their celebrations took very different shape.
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.
Four thousand years ago or so, ancient Egyptians celebrated the rebirth of the sun at this time of year. They set the length of the festival at 12 days, to reflect the 12 divisions in their sun calendar. They decorated with greenery, using palms with 12 shoots as a symbol of the completed year, since a palm was thought to put forth a shoot each month.
'Sacaea' was the Persian version. The annual renewal festival of the Babylonians was adopted by the Persians. One of the themes of these festivals was the temporary subversion of order. Masters and slaves exchanged places. A mock king was crowned. Masquerades spilled into the streets. As the old year died, rules of ordinary living were relaxed.
The Mesopotamians celebrated winter with a 12-day festival of renewal, designed to help the god Marduk tame the monsters of chaos for one more year.
The Egyptian and Persian traditions merged in ancient Rome, in a festival to the ancient god of seed-time, Saturn. The people gave themselves up to wild joy. They feasted, gave gifts, and decorated their homes with greenery. The usual order of the year was to let go of grudges and quarrels. Wars were interrupted or postponed. Businesses, courts, schools closed. Rich and poor were equal, slaves were served by masters, children headed the family. Cross-dressing and masquerades, merriment of all kinds prevailed. A mock king - the Lord of Misrule - was crowned. Candles and lamps chased away the spirits of darkness. As Roman culture became more licentious, so did Saturnalia. Over the years, it expanded to a whole week, the 17 December to 23 December.
It also degenerated from mostly tomfoolery, marked chiefly by having masters and slaves switch places, to sometimes debauchery, so that among Christians the (lower case) word "saturnalia" came to mean "orgy".
It was traditional for Romans to exchange gifts during this holiday. These gifts were customarily made of silver, although nearly anything could be given as a gift for the occasion. Several epigrams by the poet Martial survive, seemingly crafted as riddling gift-tags for gifts of food.
Holy Blood, Holy Grail discusses the pragmatic political motives of the fourth-century Roman emperor Constantine, who first moved the celebration of Christmas to December 25. The authors claim that Constantine followed the cult of Sol Invictus, a monotheistic form of sun worship that originated in Syria and was imposed by Roman emperors on their subjects a century earlier.
In the interests of unity, Constantine deliberately chose to blur the distinctions among Christianity, Mithraism (another Sun cult of the time) and Sol Invictus. This is the reason why Constantine decreed that Sunday -- "the venerable day of the sun" would be the official day of rest. Early Christians before that time celebrated their holy day on the Jewish Sabbath, Saturday. By his edict, the book further claims, the celebration of Jesus' birthday was moved from January 6th (Epiphany today) to December 25, celebrated by the cult of Sol Invictus as Natilis Invictus, the rebirth of the sun. The cult of Sol Invictus (Unconquered Sun) was a comparatively late (3rd century BCE) arrival from the East (Syria). It became the chief imperial cult of the Roman Empire, until it was replaced by Christianity. In the old calendar the winter solstice (Bruma = shortest [day]) fell on Dec. 25, so this was the day on which Sol proved Himself to be yet unconquered.
The 12 Days of Christmas -- The midwinter festival of the ancient Egyptians celebrated the birth of Horus - son of Isis (the divine mother-goddess). The celebration was 12 days long, reflecting their 12-month calendar. This concept took firm root in many other cultures. In 567 AD, Christians adopted it. Church leaders proclaimed the 12 days from December 25 to Epiphany as a sacred, festive season.
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