Winter Solstice in Britain is on Saturday 21st December 2013, 17:11 GMT
Today, at eleven minutes past five British time (eleven minutes past twelve EST, eleven minutes past nine in the morning on America’s west coast, and eleven minutes past one on Sunday morning where my niece lives in Perth, Western Australia) the sun will have completed its journey south and will start to make its way back to the Northern Hemisphere. Yippee! I’m the opposite of pessimists who insist on saying ‘Nights are drawing in now’ the day after Summer Solstice. After 5.11 p.m. today the days will start to lengthen, the warm weather will gradually return – yes, niece basking in the midsummer heat of Western Australia, listen up! The sun will soon be on its way north again.
Any scientists reading will no doubt be shaking their heads in despair by now. Relax, boffins – I know it’s the Earth that moves not the sun, but I like to romanticise.The ancient traditions surrounding the Winter Solstice fascinate me. A lot of these traditions are familiar to this day, now in the guise of Christmas festivities. Christians all over the world celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ on Christmas Day, which falls on 25th December. However, many believe this date was chosen to offset the pagan celebrations of Saturnalia and Natalis Invicti. Some believe that celebrating the birth of the ‘True Light of the world’ was synchronised with the December Solstice because, from then, the days enjoy more and more daylight in the Northern Hemisphere.
Christmas is also referred to as Yule, which may be derived from the Feast of Juul: a pre-Christian festival observed in Scandinavia at Winter Solstice. Fires would be lit to symbolise the heat, light and life-giving properties of the returning sun. The present-day custom of lighting a Yule log at Christmas is believed to have originated from the bonfires associated with the Feast of Juul. The Yule log was originally an entire tree, carefully chosen and brought into the house with great ceremony to provide as much warmth as possible. In England, Germany, France and other European countries, the Yule log burned until nothing but ash remained. The ashes were often collected and strewn on the fields as fertiliser every night until Twelfth Night.
The expression Yule log has also come to refer to log-shaped Christmas cakes, also known as chocolate logs or bûche de Noël. Yule is also one of the Lesser Sabbats of the Wiccan year.
Greenery such as holly, ivy and mistletoe was originally used to celebrate the Winter Solstice, as it was believed to ward off evil spirits and signify new growth. When Christianity came to Western Europe, this greenery was given Christian meanings and became part of Christmas celebrations. The prickly holly leaves came to represent the crown of thorns Jesus wore when he was crucified, and the berries the drops of blood he shed because of the thorns. In Scandinavia holly is known as the ‘Christ Thorn’.
In pagan times, Holly was thought to be a male plant and Ivy a female plant. An old Christmas tradition originating in the English Midlands says that whichever one was brought into a house first decided whether the man or woman of the house would rule that year – but it was unlucky to bring either in before Christmas Eve.
The evergreen fir tree has traditionally been used to celebrate winter festivals, pagan and Christian, for thousands of years. Pagans used fir branches to decorate their homes during the Winter Solstice as it made them look forward to the spring to come. The Romans used fir trees to decorate their temples at the festival of Saturnalia, and Christians use it as a sign of everlasting life with God.
Mumming is an ancient pagan custom that became adopted in Christian countries as a handy excuse for a party at Christmas. Literally, mumming means ‘making diversion in disguise’, and in the UK it would first be performed on the shortest day of the year. Men and women would swap clothes, put on masks and entertain their neighbours. However, by Medieval times mumming had turned into an excuse for people to go round the houses begging and committing crimes. It became so bad that Henry VIII passed a law saying that any masked person caught mumming would imprisoned for three months.
I’d like to thank the ever helpful Wikipedia, a handy website for the time of year called WhyChristmas, and The Wiccan Way for enlightening me with these facts surrounding Winter Solstice and its traditions. In a few hours’ time, the sun will set on the shortest day of the Northern Hemisphere’s year, and tomorrow it will set a teeny bit later.
Happy December Solstice. Winter has officially begun.
Let’s celebrate with a bit of Jethro Tull,