Is winter your favorite time of year?
Do you enjoy building snowmen?
Or taking a brisk walk in the snow?
How about drinking hot chocolate?
If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, then you’d probably enjoy celebrating the winter solstice—otherwise known as the First Day of Winter.
Here is a run-down on this centuries old tradition…
What Is the Winter Solstice?
The Winter Solstice occurs on December 21st or 22nd in the Northern Hemisphere and June 20th or 21st in the Southern Hemisphere.
It marks the shortest day of the year for dwellers in the Northern Hemisphere, and the longest day of the year for those south of the equator (and vice versa for the June solstice).
The word ‘solstice’ comes from the Latin word solstitum – sol meaning “sun” and stes meaning to “stand still.”
On this day, the Sun doesn’t really stand still.
Some people describe the Winter Solstice as the ‘day the Sun turns around’.
What happens is that on this day, the sun reaches its southern-most position as seen from the Earth (or during the June Solstice the northern-most position) and then appears to ‘stand still’ at the Tropic of Capricorn before it then reverses its direction.
Why Is the Winter Solstice Important?
The winter solstice isn’t just about shorter days.
It’s about acknowledging the planet itself. The Earth’s axis in relation to the Sun is what causes our seasons, and this rotation also dictates how much sunlight we’ll get on any given day.
In many societies, the Winter Solstice symbolizes the earth’s rebirth. From that ‘shortest day of the year’, days slowly get longer, sunlight returns and nature is reborn.
The Winter Solstice is therefore an important symbol of nature’s cycles and of optimism. And most of all, it is a time to reflect and to be grateful for the gifts of our earth.
How Did the Tradition of the Winter Solstice Begin?
People have been celebrating the solstices since ancient times. In some cultures, monuments were actually built to view the sun rise during the winter solstice.
Examples of such monuments include
- The Newgrange Tomb in Ireland
- Stonehenge in England
- The Mayan Pyramids in Mexico.
Winter Solstice celebrations have long been a tradition across a wide variety of cultures.
For example, the Romans celebrated the Winter Solstice with week-long feasts in December called Saturnalia to honor their God Saturn.
And many Northern Europeans (Germans and Scandinavians) were known for their Winter Solstice festivities called Yule Festivals—the root of our current day tradition of burning the Yule Log. (Even Nat King Cole nodded to the ‘yule’ tradition when he sings about “Yule tide carols being sung by a choir.”)
How Winter Solstice Is Celebrated
Over the centuries, every culture has developed its own way of celebrating this important time of year. Celtic priests blessed the mistletoe that grew on oak trees, while Japanese farmers lit fires on mountainsides.
Today, in the United States, several cities participate in what is called The Christmas Revels.
These are events which incorporate different traditional dances and music which pay homage to the great variety of Winter Solstice celebrations across the globe. Artistic Director Patrick Swanson explains, “Nearly every northern culture has some sort of individual way of celebrating the shortest day.”
How You Can Celebrate
Here are some ways you can celebrate the Winter Solstice:
- Decorate your home. Instead of pumpkins and leaves, use pine cones, evergreen branches and candles to celebrate winter.
- Go outside. Go for a walk or try skiing. Enjoy nature and the great outdoors.
- Incorporate light. Why not eat by candlelight?
And, of course, celebrate through food!
To help get you started, here is this week’s special recipe Mixed Winter Vegetables With Spicy Poppy Seed Sauce, the perfect plate for the First Day of Winter.