The winter solstice

Today marks the winter solstice, also known as midwinter, an astronomical phenomenon marking the day with the shortest period of daylight and the longest night of the year. "Solstice" is derived from two Latin words: "sol" meaning sun, and "sistere," to cause to stand still.

The solstice is thought to have been a cultural moment in the annual cycle for some cultures, even as far back as during neolithic times. Astronomical events were often used to guide activities such as the mating of animals, the sowing of crops and the monitoring of winter reserves of food. Many cultural mythologies and traditions are derived from this. This is attested by physical remains in the layouts of late Neolithic and Bronze Age archaeological sites, such as Stonehenge in England and Newgrange in Ireland. The primary axes of both of these monuments seem to have been carefully aligned on a sight-line pointing to the winter solstice sunrise (Newgrange) and the winter solstice sunset (Stonehenge).

The winter solstice was immensely important because the people were economically dependent on monitoring the progress of the seasons. Starvation was common during the first months of the winter, January to April (northern hemisphere) or July to October (southern hemisphere), also known as "the famine months".

In temperate climates, the midwinter festival was the last feast celebration, before deep winter began. Most cattle were slaughtered so they would not have to be fed during the winter, so it was almost the only time of year when a plentiful supply of fresh meat was available. The majority of wine and beer made during the year was finally fermented and ready for drinking at this time.

Nowadays many of the pagan rituals are celebrated in the Christian calendar. By the beginning of the 4th century, there was intense interest in selecting a day to celebrate Christmas. The western church leaders selected DEC-25 because this was already the date recognised throughout the Roman Empire as the birthday of various Pagan gods and the winter solstice celebrations. People still gather to pay homage to the winter solstice at Stonehenge — they just use modern technology as well!

Stewart Parsons