The Winter Solstice occurs on or around 21 December, and marks the point of the shortest day and longest night of the year. This is due to the axial tilt of the earth as it orbits the sun. At the Winter Solstice, the northern hemisphere is inclined away from the sun, even though the planet is actually closer to the sun by some 9 million miles than at other times of the year. It is this axial tilt which causes the days to grow darker and shorter until the Solstice, when the days begin to grow longer once again.
The word “Solstice” comes from the Latin sol sistere, meaning “the sun stands still” as it appears to do so in the sky. The season of the Winter Solstice is celebrated by cultures throughout the world and in many forms, from the Norse Yule to the Christian Christmas.
The date of Christmas was not set until the mid 4th century CE, and may have been deliberately chosen to coincide with, or co-opt, existing Pagan festivals celebrating the birth of the sun at midwinter. Many existing Christmas traditions, including decorating homes with evergreens, lights and mistletoe, feasting and giving gifts, may have originated in Pagan celebrations of the Solstice.
Bonewits states that “while the Celts don’t seem to have paid much attention to it, the Anglo-Saxons and other Germanic cultures certainly did. Also known as Yule or Midwinter, this is a day sacred to sun, thunder and fire deities”. It is also likely that the pre-Celtic megalithic cultures of the British Isles celebrated the Solstice, as monuments such as Stonehenge and Bryn Celi Du are positioned in such a way as to be illuminated by the first rays of the rising sun at the Winter Solstice.
In some forms of modern Druidry, the day is called by the Welsh name, Alban Arthan, and Hutton points to Welsh literature as providing evidence of a “new year’s feast” celebrated at this time. In most modern Paganism, however, the day is called by the Norse term, Yule, a word that has connections to “wheel” (as in the wheel of the year) and also the word “jolly”.
Higgenbotham writes that “Yule traditions include the burning of the Yule log, which represents the increasing light of the season. It is a common practice to keep a piece of it to light the next year’s Yule log, and to scatter some of its ashes over the fields”.
ADF. Our Own Druidry: An introduction to Ár nDraíocht Féin and the Druid Path. Tucson: ADF Publishing, 2009.
Bonewits, Isaac. Bonewits’s Essential Guide to Druidism. New York: Citadel Press, 2005.
Higginbotham, Joyce and River. Paganism: An Introduction to Earth-centered Religions. Woodbury, Llewellyn Publications, 2008.
Hutton, Ronald. The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.