Winter solstice may seem like an odd day for festivity. It’s the longest and darkest night of the year, yet people from across the globe from many cultures and eras have revered this day as a time of spiritual significance. Why on earth would anyone want to celebrate something as gloomy as that?
The answer is that the winter solstice marks the end of the descent into darkness and the beginning of a brighter future. In ancient Rome, this annual renewal of light was celebrated in the festival called Saturnalia, beginning December 17 and originally ending on winter solstice. It was later extended all the way to December 25, which was the official day of the sun god Sol Invictus – the unconquered Sun.
The early Christians rejected this heathen festival, but as Christianity grew and became the official religion of the Roman Empire, it morphed into what we today know as Christmas. The death and resurrection of the sun at winter solstice fit in with the general theme of Christ, and in the fourth century the Church moved the Sabbath to the day of the Sun – Sunday.
Further north a similar pagan Norse tradition was dedicated to another kind of celebration of winter solstice: Yule or Yuletide. It was centered around the white-bearded Norse god Odin, starting on the 21st and ending on the 24th. Wearing a long cape, he rode his horse, Sleipnir, across the sky.
Later, when northern Europe was Christianized, Yule was adapted to the gospel of Christ, and Odin transmogrified into another caped and white-bearded hero: Saint Nicholas of Myra.
Nicholas was a bishop in what is today called Turkey. He was part of the First Council of Nicaea, which selected the four canonical gospels in A.D. 325. He was known for his kindness, and for giving gifts to the poor. Much later, Odin’s horse was replaced by reindeer, and Saint Nicholas was nicknamed Santa Claus in folklore.
Ancient celebrations of the winter solstice predate both Yuletide and Saturnalia. We have few or no written records but know about them through temples and sacred architecture. Stonehenge is the most famous, and even today, tourists and neo-pagans flock to this English site in December.
The Pyramids at Giza in ancient Egypt are another famous monument, which is so accurately aligned astronomically that even modern techniques often have trouble rivaling its precision. In Cambodia, the Angkor Wat temple complex has encoded in it many astronomical events, including the winter solstice. In the Americas, the Mayans were keen observers of the heavens, and their pyramids incorporated various shadow patterns that only appear on the equinoxes and solstices.
This global reverence of the rebirth of the sun throughout the ages gives us a sense of what profound spiritual significance the pre-modern peoples saw in this ritualistic cycle of life. Today, it is often drowned out by materialistic substitutes, such as Black Friday, but in the West, it primarily lives on through Christmas. The historic importance of the winter solstice may serve as a reminder that there is more to this season than shopping and luscious food.