| 03.24.2018

The longest winter night — A look at the winter solstice and its ancient holiday meanings


Snow has fallen, the temperature has dropped and soon the winter solstice will occur.

Every Dec. 21, earth experiences one of the shortest days and longest nights, marking the transition from autumn to winter.

This only happens twice a year. In the northern hemisphere this happens in December, and in the southern hemisphere this occurs in June. Many ancient structures such as Stonehenge still stand today as a monument to the winter solstice, also known as “Yule.”

The “Yule Log” came from the Scandinavian tradition of cutting the largest tree down and lighting it on fire, burning through the longest night of the year.

The winter solstice is a long and ancient astronomical event marking the beginning of shorter days and longer nights. Its beginnings go back as far as the Neolithic era.

This time of the year marked when people collected food supplies to store for winter. Starvation was common and for those who weren’t able to prepare for it meant disaster. But, in spite of that reality, many ancient cultures, mostly pagan, recognized this time to celebrate and gather together with loved ones and share in the bounty of a harvest from fall. This tradition prevented low-morale, and welcome the rebirth of a new year.

These old traditions survived through the centuries and are the foundation of many celebrations today. Decorating a Christmas tree comes from a pagan tradition where pine trees were brought into the home as a symbol of life since its pines stayed green throughout the year. Other celebrations such as the Roman holiday of Saturnalia were also held around solstice with many feasts and parties. In one particular tradition, masters and servants would switch roles for the day.

Centuries later, the winter solstice was adopted and essentially replaced by the Christian religion, recognizing Jesus’s birth in order to celebrate the son of God in place of a pagan sun God. The tree was used as a symbol for the Holy Trinity and a star placed on top as the Star of Bethlehem.

Though the winter solstice isn’t as publicized or perhaps as well known today as it was back in ancient times, the traditions and festivals from the solstice have grown and evolved to the holiday events celebrated today.

The Earth’s “rebirth” into a new year and transition to longer nights and shorter days is still celebrated in its own modern forms.

Historically this time of year has brought family and friends  together to drink and decorate that green and lucky pine tree or conduct other holiday traditions to remind us that even in the dark and the cold, there will always be life. 

Justin Johnson can be reached at arg-arts@uidaho.edu

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