For many of us, the Christmas period is all about festive cheer, eating our weight in delicious food and meeting with loved ones. For others, it’s a time to celebrate the natural world and universe, with many people coming together to celebrate Winter Solstice. So, whether you’re new to this event or an annual winter festival-goer, this blog post will take you through the astronomical aspects of the Winter Solstice phenomenon, as well as the pagan beliefs and traditions surrounding it.
What is Winter Solstice?
Winter Solstice is usually on the 21st December in the northern hemisphere, and marks the shortest day and longest night of the year. It also marks a turning point, where the days begin to get longer and the nights shorter, meaning the end of winter is approaching.
This astronomical marvel is caused by earth’s tilt on its axis, where the planet’s north and south hemispheres swap places in getting the warmth and light from the sun. So here in the UK, on December the 21st, we’ll be experiencing the shortest day of the year, whereas our friends in the southern hemisphere will be enjoying the longest day. You needn’t worry though, our longest day arrives either on 20th or 21st June every year, so we don’t have too long to wait.
Paganism and the celebration of light
As one of the oldest winter celebrations in the world (even older than Christianity), there are various festivals that connect paganism with Winter Solstice. One of them is Yule, which means ‘wheel’; this is a time for pagans to come together to celebrate rebirth, fertility and the continuation of life, as the days begin to get longer and longer. In the past, it is said that Druids would cut mistletoe and give branches out as blessings, with the fruit symbolising life during the dark winter months. They also began the tradition of the yule log, where someone would set the wood alight in a bid to conquer bad spirits and bring luck for the next year.
The pagan celebration of Winter Solstice is also often linked to Shabe Yaldā, an Iranian festival that rejoices at the victory of light and goodness over darkness and evil. In Persian mythology, the angelic figure of Mithra, who is said to be the protector of truth and guardian of cattle, was born on 22nd December to a virgin mother, and thus symbolises truth, goodness and strength to those who follow Shabe Yaldā.
Some of the earliest people on earth first noticed the changing days and nights, and built monuments and structures as a way of following the sun’s behaviour; one of those was Stonehenge. Nowadays people from all over the world come to celebrate both Winter and Summer Solstice at Stonehenge, from astronomers gazing up into the sky, to pagans celebrating the longer, brighter days.
This year, Winter Solstice at Stonehenge will be delayed until the 22nd December. This is because the festival is traditionally celebrated during the sunrise closest to the time the sun is stationary, just before its move from north to south. For this year, it means that the best time to celebrate Winter Solstice is at sunrise on the 22nd.
Do you want to get involved with Winter Solstice celebrations?
Stonehenge is a tricky place to get to by foot or public transport, so it’s a good idea to hire a car with Alamo if you decide to venture on to this destination. To make sure you find the right car for you in time for the 21st and 22nd December, be sure to check out the great range of vehicles we have on offer today.