Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Winter Solstice

Synchronization: in history, a term used to describe when religious practices are recycled in newer religions, making adoption of the newer religion easier to adopt.

You are probably wondering why I begin my blog with a vocabulary lesson, especially considering my track record with spelling (yes, I am fully aware). But keep this idea in the back of your mind as you read on; I’ll come back it at the end.

Solstice comes from two Latin words: sol (sun) and sistere (to stand), meaning the sun has reached the northernmost ecliptic, and appears to stand still.

For centuries, and across cultures, the winter solstice has been celebrated. In my Medieval England class I learned a bit about the winter solstice, and how Christianity adopted the holiday. But I was curious about the history of the festival.

The winter solstice is rooted in many ancient religions. Almost every one of them celebrated this important day as a seasonal milestone. Because this is the shortest day of the year, many saw this day as a day of fertility; the days only do get longer after this pint. Another way to think about the festival is that if the sun has been diminishing, it would make sense to appease the Gods so they will bring the sunlight back.

In Scandonavia, the festival was called Yule. The Druids began the tradition of the Yule log; it was lit to banish evil spirits, defeat darkness and bring good luck for the coming year. The logs would be lit for twelve days, before another ceremony was held to extinguish the fire. Sprigs of holly and ivy were brought into the home to celebrate the solstice. Both plants are evergreens, so they signify the eternal nature of the sun.

The Chinese people gave this holiday a great importance, saying it was as important as the Spring Festival. During the Zhou Dynasty it was known as the New Year. During the Tang and Song Dynasties it was on the winter solstice that heaven and ancestor worship was performed.

In the Persian and Egyptian cultures the start of the solar year was marked to celebrate the victory of light over darkness; thus it would make sense to celebrate during this time of year when the sun once again come to prominence. The Persians adopted their festival of Daygan from the Babylonians. The celebration, called Shab-e yalda, included feasts, fires being burnt all night and a temporary subversion of order where masters and servants would switch roles. This would allow chaos to reign for one day before order was restored and succeed at the end of the festival.

The ancient Romans celebrated Saturnalia, which was one of the most important celebrations on their calendar. While it was originally a one-day celebration, it grew to last from three to seven days. People celebrated with drinking gift-giving, bonfires, candles and role reversals for slaves and masters; yes, this practice was adopted from the Persian practice.

Also important to Persian celebration of the winter solstice was Mithra, the Sun God. The winter solstice was his birthday.

So now back to my vocabulary lesson at the beginning of this blog. The similarities in how different cultures celebrated the winter solstice would suggest that cultures took traditions and repurposed them for their own holidays.

Now, winter solstice falls pretty close to Christmas doesn’t it? Think this is a coincidence?

It is not.

Around the time that Christianity began to spread, Mithraism (the worship of Mithra) has spread from Persia into the west. The religion was popular among the Roman army, and some scholars would even argue that Mithraism was a rival religion to Christianity. Around 4 C.E. miscalculations in leap years etc placed the birthday of Mithra at December 25.

Christians took a pagan holiday, already in practice, and repurposed it to make it easier for people to practice Christianity. Prior to 4 C.E. Christ’s birth was celebrated around January 6; the popularity of Mithra made the church rethink the holiday, and change the date to December 25.

Accepting a new religion is much easier when the holiday adopts old traditions. This is exactly what the Christian Church did with Christmas. If you truly read the Bible, you’ll see that it was actually summer when the birth story takes place, not winter.

Tonight is a snowy night in Colorado, perfect for ushering in the winter solstice. I hope everyone has a bright holiday season, regardless of the holiday you celebrate, or the traditions you keep. And remember, as always, Happy History!


  1. Ashley, I was reading an article in New Scientist. Did you know that the number zero was not accepted as a mathematical concept until the 17th century? They may explain why there is no year 0, the year 1 B.C. is followed by the year 1 A.D. The Gregorian calendar was set in 1588.
    As a historian do you have another explanation? Also why does the new year begin 9 days after the winter solstice?

  2. Alan, I think I vaguely knew that about the number 0. While I knew the years jumped from 1 B.C.E. to 1 C.E. I don't think I ever consciously thought about that being a reason.

    As to why the new year begins nine days after the winter solstice, I do not have an answer now without doing some digging. But digging I will do! And I do make a mention to the calendar in an earlier post for the Russian Revolution (posted in 2010). Thanks for the great idea about the New Year, I will put it on my list to investigate this year!