At 05:30 UTC this Thursday, December 22nd, the Earth's axis will be exactly in line with the sun. Seen from the northern hemisphere, the sun will be the furthest south and closest to the horizon at that instant. The winter solstice has been celebrated for millennia by cultures from the Andes to the Urals and from Ireland to Japan.
Lacking precise astronomical tools, and desiring an excuse to party during the cold and dark season, cultures around the world often extended that moment to a day, a week, or more for a festival celebrating light, rebirth, and keeping warm. Scandinavians would gather family and friends and place a large yule log on the fire, feasting and celebrating while the log burned for many days. Similarly, in China, the Dōngzhì Festival features feasting with family. Solstice often marked a key point in the calendar. Celts and Druids created large stone structures structures like Stonehenge and Newgrange, in where a position is illuminated only at the solstice.
Winter solstice is the longest night and shortest day of the year. The cultural symbolism is thus often tied to the return or victory of a sun figure in the local mythology. Some examples:
- Japanese myths tell of the sun goddess Ameterasu being lured back out of a cave and into the sky on winter solstice.
- Korochun, celebrated by Slavs in Eastern Europe, marks the death of the old sun god and his resurrection as the new sun god.
- The practice of lighting the menorah on Hanukkah may have originated as a solstice tradition.
- Hopi and Zuni Indians celebrate Soyal, when the sun returns from a long sleep.
- Sol Invictus, celebrated in the Roman Empire, translates literally as "Invincible Sun."
- During the festival of Şeva Zistané, Kurds celebrate the rebirth of the sun and victory of light over darkness.
The theme birth and rebirth sometimes includes non-solar figures as well. The births of Pryderi (Welsh), Mithra (Persian), and Dievs (Latvian) are all celebrated at the winter solstice. Contemporary Wiccans and Neopagans often celebrate winter solstice as the death of the old god and birth of the young god. Locally, many Neopagans gather at Red Rocks before dawn on solstice to drum up the sun.
Christmas, the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, falls on December 25th, the designated date of winter solstice in the Julian calendar. Christmas in many contemporary European communities incorporates old local solstice traditions such as the yule log. The practice of Christmas gift giving may have arisen from Saturnalia, widely celebrated in Rome when Christianity was introduced.