Winter Solstice Celebrations

Cultures throughout history have had their own winter solstice celebrations, on or around December 21 on the modern calendar, as a time when the daylight is the shortest of any day during the year, or the shortest day. It marks the end of the long dark nights of winter and hints at the return of light and warmth. When the seasonal significance of the event is marked, winter holidays, rituals and festivals are held to note the cosmic events taking place.

Ancient people noted the winter solstice, and they left evidence that they held rituals or celebrations to mark the event. Prehistoric stone sites such as Stonehenge in Europe, an astronomically aligned stone altar in Guatemala and carefully placed windows on an ancient Native American stone house show that the ancients were in tune with the divisions of the heavens and demonstrated an amazing accuracy for astronomy. Since the daylight following the winter solstice grows longer, many legends and traditions across the world emphasize rebirth and new life with winter solstice celebrations.

Egyptians recalled the rebirth of the god-king Osiris upon the winter solstice and ancient Greeks celebrated a winter solstice celebration called Lenaea when a god was torn to pieces and then reborn. In Rome, Solis Invicti was a winter celebration where the sun deities were worshipped. Other cultures equated the winter solstice with renewal and rebirth. In Japan, the Amaterasu celebration honored the sun goddess and her emergence from a dark cave. In Pakistan during the winter solstice, a purification ritual is performed prior to feasting, singing and dancing. From Iceland and Russia to Vietnam and West Africa, winter solstice celebrations are among the first recorded winter holidays.

Perhaps the most widespread winter solstice tradition is the celebration of Christmas. The birth of Jesus Christ was celebrated on December 25, the day of the winter solstice in the Julian calendar. Since the fourth century A.D, Christians began blending pagan winter solstice traditions with Christian rituals, celebrating those modified rituals in place of the Roman festival of the sun god. Today, Christians connected this winter holiday with the birth of Christ and celebrate his nativity worldwide.

Today, the winter solstice is found in the heart of many worldwide celebrations, and most celebrants aren't even aware that the solstice is one of the reasons for the winter holiday they are celebrating. While there aren't many who celebrate winter solstice in its own right, it's interesting to see how this astronomical event that has been noted by people for centuries continues to shape winter celebrations today.

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