winter solstice

Winter Solstice 2020: Traditions, History & Cultural Significance

The Winter Solstice, aka the longest night and shortest day of the year, is one of the world’s most ancient holidays. It has been celebrated in just about every culture around the globe for thousands of years. This pagan holiday was a time for ancient cultures to take stock, conduct rituals and kick off the new half of the year with festivals. Vikings, Maya, Ancient Chinese and everyone in between celebrated in their own way. Whether you’re looking to celebrate this year’s solstice or just curious about one of history’s most fascinating holidays, here’s all you need to know.

winter solstice

The Whos Whats and Whys Behind the Winter Solstice

History of the Winter Solstice

Winter Solstice observation dates as far back as the Neolithic period in the tail end of the Stone Age. In other words, 12,000 years ago. Thousands of years before even the first telescope humans were predicting the seasons in ways we still can’t fully comprehend. Nonetheless, ancient humans lived and died by the seasons and considered equinoxes and solstices alike to be very sacred days. The fertility of the crops, the livelihood of livestock and health of the people, were all deemed to depend on the observance of the solstice rituals.
While specific traditions and rituals varied globally, one thing was certain across cultures; The Solstice was the start of the astronomical winter and symbolized new beginnings. Over 10,000 years later it’s still recognized around the globe as a holiday of great importance and historical significance.

When is the Winter Solstice?

The Winter Solstice is celebrated every year on the shortest day of the year in its respective hemisphere. In the Northern Hemisphere that’s usually on or around December 21st and in the Southern Hemisphere on or around June 21st. This year it will fall on Monday, December 21.

Fast Facts About the 12,000 Year Old Sun Celebration

‘Sun Stands Still’

The word solstice is derived from Latin (solstitium)
and when translated means ‘sun stands still.’ This was because many ancient cultures believed the sun, and consequentially time stood still during this time. They weren’t exactly wrong, either. At noon on Winter Solstice, the sun does appear to stand still in the sky.

winter solstice

It’s Not Actually a Day, but a Time

While cultures celebrate the Winter Solstice for a day or several days across different cultures, the solstice itself is a specific time. The solstice takes place at the exact moment the sun situates itself above the Tropic of Capricorn. That time will vary between timezones. This year the solstice will take place at 10:02 AM UTC (Coordinated Universal Time).

Stonehenge Was More Than Likely Built For the Solstices

While history is still a bit muddy on exactly how and why Stonehenge was built, most agree that it had something to do with the solstices. The massive monolithic display was built some 5,000 years ago by Neolithic people and is now one of the most famous spots worldwide for the solstices. Twice a year a great spectacle occurs when the sun passes perfectly through the stones on the winter and summer solstices leading experts to believe one of its main purposes was to celebrate astronomical events.

winter solstice
The Earth’s Proximity to the Sun Will Surprise You

Here’s a science lesson. Contrary to popular belief, during the Northern Hemisphere’s winter, the Earth is actually closest to the sun. What happens during the solstice and between the seasons is due to the Earths tilt, not distance from the sun. During the respective solstices, the Earth’s axis is either toward or away from the sun, which brings about hot and cold seasons.

It Coincided With the Mayan’s “Prediction” of the 2012 Apocolypse

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, everyone by now knows that in December 2012, the world was supposed to end. Whether we all went up in flames or were taken out by an asteroid, something was going to happen, and it wasn’t going to be good. This mass hysteria was all thanks to the Mayan calendar and its 13th Baktun which coincided with the 2012 Winter Solstice. The 13th Baktun was the last cycle of the Mayan calendar, causing many to think it could also mean the end of civilization. “End of the world” parties were thrown, bad movies were made, but we lived to tell the tale.

 

How Ancient Civilizations Celebrated the Winter Solstice

Celts

To the Celts, the solstice was symbolic of a great battle between the Oak King who represents light (summer) and the Holly King who represents dark (winter) in Celtic mythology. Year after year ‘winter’ would emerge victoriously and the two would ‘battle’ again on the summer solstice. This was also a time of big celebration. Celts were known for their epic feasts and parties during this time where they’d partake in their winter solstice traditions. These soirees were usually accompanied by large bonfires that would keep evil spirits from their crops through the dark months. This festival period was known as Alban Arthuan. However, is sometimes referred to as Yule which was a celebration originated by ancient Norse. But more on that in a bit.

Greek

When it came to partying hard, ancient Greeks were some of the best. Historians recognize the Panathenaea festivals, in particular, as some of the wildest parties in history. The winter (and summer) Solstices were no exception and a time of all-out debauchery. This Hellenistic bonanza was a time where pretty much anything went. We’re talking sex cakes, animal sacrifice, infinite wine and fertility rituals galore. During this party, women were usually the stars of the show thanks to a celebration style called Haloa that honours women, lust and fertility.

winter solstice
Norsemen

Ancient Scandinavians and Germanic people’s solstice celebrations are largely responsible for most of today’s Christmas traditions. From the use Christmas trees, mistletoes and even Santa, the pagan origins of this later Christianized holiday can be felt all around. In Viking Age Scandinavia they celebrated Yule, a 12 day festival of all things winter. Yule is widely used as a blanket term for a pagan winter celebration; however, it was the Norsemen who did it first. The Vikings celebrated by decorating winter trees with figures of their Gods and various other decorations. Additionally, they burnt a symbolic Yule log which eventually spread as a winter tradition through many cities from Cornwall to Provence. During this time they honoured the Norse God Odin with offerings and partook in lots of revelries with epic feats, bonfires and drunk extravaganzas.

winter solstice
Maya

The Maya considered the Winter Solstice to be a great time of renewal and rebirth. Known for their complex calendars, the Maya used intricate date systems, such as the Haab. This ancient Mesoamerican calendar divides the year into 18 months of 20 days each and concludes ceremoniously on the Winter Solstice. The sun was the singular most important part of Mayan religious activity. It was considered a way to understand life and the universe as a whole. Because of this, the Maya would worship Solstices and Equinoxes in ways we still struggle to comprehend. Chichen Itza, one of Mexico’s most important Mayan sites is one of the most significant spots in the country for the Winter Solstice. Bi-Annually the sun seems to ‘climb’ the steps up the massive temple of El Castillo and serves as just one of many Mayan Astro engineering mysteries.


Ancient Chinese

Ancient Chinese civilizations placed heavy importance on the astrological calendar and marked the equinoxes and solstices with massive festivals. During the Winter Solstice, a grand festival called Dongzhi takes place. This festival whose name translates literally to “the arrival of winter” spans millennia and Chinese still carry it out in big fashion today. Historically families gathered together to visit their families tombs and pay tribute to their ancestors and gods. In true Chinese fashion, the big highlight is the food. It was traditional for families to gather to eat copious amounts of fatty dumplings that contained warming herbs such as ginger and garlic. This is because winter is a period of low Yang energy in Yin and Yang philosophy. To combat this, they ate Yang saturated foods according to Chinese medicinal cuisine. Other traditional foods eaten during this time include wonton soup, eight treasures porridge and daikon.
winter solstice

Bucket List Destinations for the Winter Solstice

Stonehenge, England

Stonehenge is on most people’s must-see list but not just for the solstice. It’s one of the most revered ancient monuments worldwide full of mystery and archaeological wonder. This stone-age masterpiece served as a druid worship site, mass burial ground and astrological temple. Because of this, the absolute best time to visit is during the solstice. On the Winter Solstice, the sun sets perfectly between the mega Trilithons creating an experience unlike any other. The spectacle draws thousands of visitors to the stones each year looking to experience their mysterious history.

We understand that the pandemic can make reaching Stonehenge quite difficult. Fortunately, the Stonehenge authorities are hosting a live stream. Watch the sun pass between the ancient megalith of Stonehenge here.


Chaco Canyon, New Mexico

New Mexico boasted a thriving Pueblo culture between 850 and 1250 that’s left much of the region with fascinating archaeological finds. The Pueblans were ancestors of the Aztecs and one of the most skilled Native American groups in astrology. The Chaco Canyon, a ceremonial site left over from the Pueblan days is great proof of this. The now National Historic Park is full of countless hiking trails and lookout points to observe this Puebloan relic. Hike a trail of your choice or get special permission to camp out. Either way you can observe the perfectly positioned sunrise on the Winter Solstice.


Newgrange – Co. Meath, Ireland

Newgrange is a prehistoric megalithic masterpiece in the Boyne Valley of Ireland’s Ancient East. This passage tomb clocks in at 5,200 years old and is in perfect alignment with the Winter and Summer Solstices. Doubling as a tomb and temple, it is a place of great cultural and spiritual significance to Ireland. So what happens on the solstice at Newgrange? At sunrise, the sun shines directly through the “roof box” which serves as a passage for the graves. It is easy to see why this ancient burial mound is one of the most important discoveries of the Neolithic era once brilliantly illuminated. No doubt about it, Newgrange belongs on any bucket list solstice or otherwise.


Sphynx and The Pyramids of Giza – Cairo, Egypt

It’s no secret that Egypt’s Pyramids of Giza draw visitors from all corners of the world looking to experience their ancient wonder and mystery. Despite being completed nearly 5,000 years ago, they are still revealing long-hidden secrets today. From the “unknown room” to the pyramid’s astrological alignment, there’s much to be discovered. Directly in front of the Sphinx, you can witness the sunset perfectly between the Khafra and Khufu pyramids. Your head is sure to spin when trying to conjure just how Ancient Egyptians built these iconic structures.
winter solstice

Temple of the Sun – Cuzco, Peru

In the heart of Machu Picchu lies one of the world’s most fascinating Solstice sites. The Incas would worship the sun and actually believe themselves to be descendants from the fiery ball in the sky. The Temple of the Sun in Machu Picchu has a window through which the sun shines through. On the Winter Solstice which takes place in June, the light perfectly illuminates sacred rocks beneath the temple. The Winter Solstice is also celebrated in conjunction with Inti Raymi, the ancient Incan holiday known as the “Festival of the Sun.”

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Melanie Hamilton
Melanie Hamilton

Melanie is an avid traveller with a passion for history and global foods. She is currently based in Tbilisi, Georgia where most of her time is occupied with qvevri wine and Soviet history. Having do-si-do'd her way across Europe and Latin America, she's enjoyed some of the world's most exciting places firsthand and can't wait to tell you about them.

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