For many cultures around the world, the winter solstice (which falls on Dec. 21 this year) marks an important date for many traditions and cultures. It's the shortest day of the year and the longest night of the year, and signals a powerful transition point between seasons. Because of this, it has been celebrated and revered in ancient civilizations, indigenous cultures, and various religions. In Pagan times the winter solstice was referred to as Yule and was a celebration of the Goddess energy.
Solstices occur because Earth’s axis of rotation is tilted about 23.5 degrees. This tilt is what drives our planet's seasons, as the Northern and Southern Hemispheres get unequal amounts of sunlight over the course of a year. From March to September, the Northern Hemisphere is tilted more toward the sun, driving its spring and summer. From September to March, the Northern Hemisphere is tilted away, so it feels autumn and winter. The Southern Hemisphere's seasons are reversed.
On Earth, our axial tilt plays a much bigger role in governing our annual seasons than our near-circular orbit. Earth makes its closest annual approach of the sun about two weeks after the winter solstice, during the Northern Hemisphere's winter. Earth is farthest from the sun about two weeks after the June solstice, during the Northern Hemisphere's summer. So, the tilt of the earth’s axis has a much stronger influence on seasons and climate than our distance from the sun during our yearly journey around the sun.
Days have been getting shorter since the Autumnal Equinox, but now that we have reached the shortest night, days will begin to be longer by a minute or two each day until the Spring Equinox. So, the solstice marks the return of the sun which is why it is a time of symbolism and power. The spiritual and energetic significance of the winter solstice is multi-layered, but the most direct relevance is that it symbolizes the birth of the sun.
A lot of common solstice rituals include candlelight to get through the extra darkness of the day. Once the sun goes down, turn off all the lights and spend a moment or two in darkness. Once you've honored the sun's light in your mind, you can light some candles on your own, or with loved ones. Or make a fire and gather with loved ones. Grab a piece of paper, write down the things you want to let go of, then toss the paper into the fire as a symbol of release.
If you aren't particularly religious or spiritual, you might feel like this has nothing to do with you. But we can take advantage of this unique energy. The winter solstice is a time of quiet energy, where you get the opportunity to look within yourself and focus on what you want and need. Probably the most important spiritual meaning of the winter solstice is that this is a time meant to reflect and recreate yourself. It's a time to set goals and intentions for the coming year, to examine and let go of our past, and to make changes within ourselves. The solstice is essentially tied to a personal awakening and aligning with the energy of the planet, Mother Earth.
Here are some of the ways the solstice has been celebrated over the years.
- The enigmatic English structure Stonehenge has a special relationship with the solstices. On the summer solstice, the complex’s Heel Stone, which stands outside Stonehenge’s main circle, lines up with the rising sun.
- Though it remains unclear precisely how the ancient Egyptians oriented the Great Pyramids at Giza, the giant structures appear to be aligned with the sun. When viewed from the Sphinx, the sun sets between the pyramids of Khufu and Khafre during the summer solstice.
- The traditional Scandinavian holiday of Midsummer welcomes the summer solstice with maypole dancing, drinking, and romance.
- During the Slavic holiday of Ivan Kupala, long timed to the summer solstice, people wear floral wreaths and dance around bonfires. Some plucky souls jump over the fires as a way of ensuring good luck and health.
- On June 24, in time with the Southern Hemisphere’s winter solstice, the Inca Empire celebrated Inti Raymi, a festival that honored the Inca religion’s powerful sun god Inti and marked the Inca new year. The festival is still celebrated throughout the Andes, and since 1944, a reconstruction of Inti Raymi has been staged in Cusco, Peru, less than two miles from its Inca Empire home.
- Iranians celebrate Yalda, a festival timed to the Northern Hemisphere’s winter solstice in December. The festival—a mainstay since Zoroastrianism was Iran’s dominant religion—traditionally honors the birth of Mithra, the ancient Persian goddess of light.
- Ancient Romans celebrated the winter solstice with Saturnalia, a seven-day festival that involved giving presents, decorating houses with plants, and lighting candles.