Today, December 21, is a special day. It is technically the first day of winter and the last day of fall. It is the shortest day and the longest night of the year. In the Northern Hemisphere, it takes place from December 21-December 23. It is the Winter Solstice. These dates are the start of the Summer Solstice in the Southern Hemisphere, since they are the exact opposite of us. The winter solstice is a celebration around the world and has been since the beginning of time. The word solstice is derived from the Latin sol (“sun”) and sistere (“to stand still”), because at the solstices, the Sun’s declination appears to “stand still”; that is, the seasonal movement of the Sun’s daily path (as seen from Earth) pauses at a northern or southern limit before reversing direction.
Ancient Romans held several celebrations around the time of the winter solstice. Saturnalia, a holiday in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture, was a weeklong celebration in the days leading up to the winter solstice.
Also around the time of the winter solstice, Romans observed Juvenalia, a feast honoring the children of Rome.
In addition, members of the upper classes often celebrated the birthday of Mithra, on December 25. Mithra was an ancient Persian god of light. It was believed that Mithra, an infant god, was born of a rock. For some Romans, Mithra’s birthday was the most sacred day of the year. In the later Roman Empire, Mithra blended with Sol Invictus, god of the “unconquered sun.”
The Ancient Scandanavians celebrate the Yule, or the return of the sun at this time. The Inca Empire payed homage to the sun god Inti at a winter solstice celebration called Inti Raymi (Quechua for “sun festival”). The Chinese celebration of the winter solstice, Dong Zhi (which means “Winter Arrives”) welcomes the return of longer days and the corresponding increase in positive energy in the year to come. In Japan, the winter solstice is less a festival than a traditional practice centered on starting the new year with health and good luck. It’s a particularly sacred time of the year for farmers, who welcome the return of a sun that will nurture their crops after the long, cold winter. Shab-e Yalda or the Night of Birth, “Yalda night” is an Iranian festival celebrating the longest and darkest night of the year. The celebration springs out of ancient Zoroastrian traditions and customs intended to protect people from evil spirits during the long night. For the Zuni, one of the Native American Pueblo peoples in western New Mexico, the winter solstice signifies the beginning of the year. It’s marked with a ceremonial dance called Shalako. These are but a few of the celebrations from around the world and from different cultures that honor the winter solstice.