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Pre-Christian Winter Solstice Celebration Lore and the Origins of Christmas Festivals

Updated on December 13, 2011

Science has this to say about it: the Winter Solstice is the exact moment when the axial tilt of a planet's pole (North or South) is furthest from the star it orbits, The Sun. The Winter Solstice represents the day of the year with the shortest amount of sunlight, and the longest amount of darkness. Across many cultures and ages, the Winter Solstice has been known to be called many names: The first day of winter, midwinter, the longest night, for example. It usually occurs on the 21st or 22nd of December.

In Roman times, it was known as Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, which translates to “The birthday of the unconquered Sun.” It was celebrated on the 25th of December, according to the Gregorian calendar. Spanning the earliest cultures, there have been many winter solstice celebrations. It represents a climax, a turning point of the heavens. And accordingly, should be honored and celebrated.

The Sun cresting through Stonehenge on Winter Solstice

There is a story in Hebraic lore about Adam (of the Adam and Eve fame) realizing the Sun was gradually giving less light each day towards this time of year. Feeling as if he was being punished by God for his sins, each year starting 8 days before the Solstice, he would undergo an 8 day fasting. After a few years, and probably on an empty stomach, he realized this was part of a regular astral cycle. At the same time each year, the days would begin to get longer again. He soon replaced the fasting with 8 days of celebrations for the returning and “unconquered” Sun. According to this story, mid-winter celebrations have been around since the very first man. So given our wintry proclivity for partying, its easy to understand why that last week or so of December is a historically nostalgic and celebrated period of time. It has been celebrated in some capacity for thousands of years. The idea of passing out small gifts around this time of year is thought to be a Roman by-product. During the celebration of Saturnalia, children would get small gifts like pencils and clothing.

Across the world, this understanding of the cycle of the Sun varied from region to region. However, it has been found that most advanced early cultures, spanning from East to West, celebrated this time of year in some form or fashion. Most recognized it as the Re-birth of the Sun. These festivals, celebrations and rituals would occur in late December. It was a time when all the farming and storing had been done for the winter. The work was done, and it was time to celebrate the past year and the one that was about to begin. Unique decorations associated with Christmas would be laid out. There is a large assortment of decorations that have been displayed throughout the years. Evergreen boughs were cut down and hung on doorways in 2nd century BC Rome. In the 13th century, St Francis of Assisi began a tradition among them, the iconic Nativity Scene, depicting the birth of Jesus.

So we now have a basic understanding as to why ancient peoples were celebrating at this colder and darker time of the year. We are beginning to get closer and closer to how we celebrate Christmas and the New Year holidays in our modern age. In today’s world, few celebrate the Solstice itself. All forms of celebrations take their roots in the civilizations and customs that come before us. Our Christmas is a melting pot of many different cultures and the westward expansion of a small, but rapidly growing group called Christians. They would transform the pagan celebrations into a Holiday dedicated to the birth of their Savior, Jesus Christ. Worldwide, Christmas is the most popular and most celebrated of holidays. The feelings and emotions associated with family and friends, the giving of gifts, and unique Christmas foods are unrivaled to this day.


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