Tonight at 9:49 PM (Mountain Standard Time) marks the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year and the longest night of the year. After the Winter Solstice, the days will start to get longer again and the nights shorter. As the Earth is slanted on its axis (23.5°), anything north of the Arctic Circle receives no direct sunlight during this time. This slant is what causes our seasons. Astronomical events such as this were used as guides for planting and harvesting crops as well as monitoring food reserves. Starvation was common so it was necessary to ensure there would be enough to last through to Spring. The Winter Solstice was often the last big feast before snuggling down for the wintertime. As a way to save food for humans, the cattle were slaughtered which provided a source of fresh meat.
The Winter Solstice plays an important in role several cultures and religions around the globe and has done so for more than 6,000 years. The Winter Solstice is one of the most important events in human history. While the traditions and faiths varied, the celebrations surrounded the celebration of the rebirth of the sun, the rebirth and victory of light over darkness, and often personified in the rebirth of a savior or messianic gods such as Attis for the Romans, Dionysus for the Greeks, Mithra for the Persians, Horus for the Egyptians, Tammuz for the Sumerians, and the list goes on.
In ancient Rome, there was held a week-long (December 17th to December 24th) held feast called Saturnalia in honor of the titan Saturn, father of the gods, who was considered a god of time and of the sun. During this time, work and business were stopped in lieu of feasting and frivolities; often turning into debauchery. As the Roman religion was an inclusive one they adopted more and more gods who shared the Winter Solstice as their birthday, so Emperor Aurelian established the 25th as "Dies Natalis Invicti Solis" or rather "the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun."
The ancient Greeks held also held a festival similar to Saturnalia, but they called theirs "Lenaea" and served to honor Dionysus. Sources say that "Lenaea" translates into "the Festival of the Wild Women" where women would dance together without any male companionship. It was said that either a goat or a bull would be slaughtered during this celebration as a sacrifice to the gods.
The ancient Germanic and Nordic pagans would celebrate the Winter Solstice by honoring Jólner during their festival "Yule"; often spelled in a variety of different ways. Jólner was one of the many names of the Norse god Odin. During this festival, sacrifices were performed to gain the blessing of the gods on their crops during the next harvest. Yule Logs would be burned and could last 12-days, during which time the people could eat. The fires were not just lit for the food, but were also used to commemorate the light of the returning sun that was soon to come. Germanic practices have had an influence on modern Christmas lore such as Santa Claus, but that figure is influenced by a number of cultures and ancient practices to be discussed at another time.
Celtic druids celebrated "Alban Arthan" which translates to "Light of Arthur" and is supposedly the day when King Arthur was born. Some of the ancient Celtics believed the sun stood still for 12-days and to counter the darkness and shortening day, they light fires. These ancient people and others built megaliths such as Newgrange in Ireland or Stonehenge in England. Newgrange is located in the valley of the Boyne River (north of Dublin) and is said to be around 5200-years old (older than Giza and Stonehenge). This structure is perfectly aligned to the sunrise of the Winter Solstice. Some say that as the rays pierce through the window into the tomb of Newgrange is said to represent the rays of their sun god uniting with mother earth, thus bringing new life to the world. In addition to sacrifices, plants also served a purpose for the Celts as some like mistletoe were said to have magical and protective powers.
While it's not exactly known what type of religious ritual was used, but pyramids have been found in South America (like Peru and Brazil) that are aligned with the Winter Solstice.
In the Hebrew tradition, Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, is practiced and commemorates the dedication of the Second Temple. This holiday lasts for 8-days, but the exact time when it occurs changes as the Jewish calendar doesn't coincide with the Gregorian calendar used today; it may occur at any time from late November to late December. Some argue that Hanukkah isn't a solstice festival as it based on a lunar calendar, but it has many characteristics of a solstice festival.
For those of us in the Christian faith, the Winter Solstice is a time for Christmas that doesn't rest on this day, but the 25th of December. In early Christianity, there was neither Christmas nor any correlation with Christ's birth to this time of year. During the 4th century, Rome was going through a conversion from the various pagan religions to Christianity and as such, to better ease the conversion, Pope Julius I chose December 25th as the birth of Christ as a replacement for "Dies Natalis Invicti Solis." It would take several centuries before most of Christendom would universally practice Christmas in some form. Many Biblical scholars believe that Jesus of Nazareth would have been born in the fall and some argue it was in the springtime. Many would criticize the Christian faith for such things, but I find the discrepancies to be irrelevant as we Christians are celebrating the birth of Christ, not the day itself so the exact date of his birth means very little.
In Freemasonry, the solstices are affiliated with the Holy Saints John, our patron saints. These two serve as a balance of the virtues every Mason should have and which lead to enlightenment. Some have pointed to the Point Within A Circle as a representation of the solstices and which one can see: the two saints standing on either side of a circle to represent the points in time that would equate to the summer and winter solstices which align closely to the Feast Days for each of the Saints John.
Whatever your faith may be, I hope you enjoy this day and Happy Holidays!
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