If you live in the Northern Hemisphere, we say to you: Welcome to the longest night of the year! Wherever you live—and as long as men and women have walked the earth, the solstices have been marked as auspicious turning points in the calendar.
For those in the Northern Hemisphere, this is the Winter Solstice. Often termed Yuletide or Yulefest, or just Yule, the days surrounding winter solstice have long been marked with cold-weather festivals and warm feasts, giving thanks for the “rebirth of the sun” and the reversal from increasing darkness to increasing light. Ancient Germanic peoples observed Yule; ancient Romans held Saturnalia, Brumalia and other festivals for the sun with food, gift-giving, gambling and often ludicrous behavior. Today, Pagans and Wiccans gather for Yule festivities: feasting and the lighting of the celebrated Yule log, which will smolder for 12 days.
Germanic peoples are credited the religious festival called “Yule,” and during Yuletide - which lasted approximately two months - many participants paid tribute to the Wild Hunt - a ghostly procession in the winter sky - and the god Odin. Of course, this depended on where you lived in Europe at that time. Traditionally, enormous feasts and livestock sacrifices were associated with Yule. So merry was the atmosphere in these activities, in fact, that Grettis Saga refers to Yule as the time of “greatest mirth and joy among men.” Today’s Pagans and Wiccans often exchange gifts at Yule meals, while praising the rebirth of the sun and various gods.
The Winter Solstice is the shortest day and longest night of the year when the sun appears at noontime to be at its lowest altitude above the horizon of the year. It occurs around December 20-22 in the Northern Hemisphere and around June 20-22 in the Southern Hemisphere. The winter solstice marks the moment when Sun is at its weakest and only grows stronger until it reaches its peak strength at the summer solstice and begins its gradual decline yet again.
The Winter Solstice was an important annual event in the lives of ancient people. Stonehenge appears to be aligned to the sunset on the winter solstice while Newgrange is arranged so that the light from the sunrise on the morning of the winter solstice floods the inner chamber. Folklore and archaeological evidence suggest that the Winter Solstice was a time of religious celebration for many pre-Christian cultures.
Solstice traditions have many names around the world: Inti Raymi in the Incan Empire in honor of the sun god Inti, and Soyalangwul for the Zuni and the Hopi. In Machu Piccu, there still exists a large stone column known as an Intihuatana, or the “tying of the sun”; ancient peoples would ceremonially tie the sun to the stone so that it could not escape. The East Asian Dongzhi festival recalls yin/yang and the dark/light balance of the cosmos.