It’s the shortest, darkest day of the year in the UK, but the winter solstice isn’t all doom and gloom. An interesting history and being at the heart of the festive season mean the winter solstice is something to celebrate, although that’s probably from the comfort of your own home under a blanket. Let’s explore some of the most fascinating facts about the shortest of days.
When is the winter solstice 2023
The winter solstice is the time of year when the Sun is the greatest distance away from the Tropic of Cancer. This year’s winter solstice will take place at 3:27am GMT on 22nd December 2023. The event is always around 21st to 23rd December, and it’s your chance to see some fascinating sights if you get to the right locations in time.
The Sun stands still
Solstice is a traditional astronomical term and is Latin in origin. The name is taken from the idea that the Sun appears to come to a standstill, and in Ancient Rome, this was described as ‘solstitium’, a combination of the words ‘sol’, meaning sun, and ‘sistere’, meaning standstill.
A time of death and rebirth
Early civilisations and societies closely linked nature to the human experience. The apparent ‘death of the light’ and the danger this posed to societies that hunt to survive meant a wide range of solstice celebrations and rituals were commonplace in ancient communities. Cattle and other livestock would be slaughtered in midwinter to allow for feasting and survival on their meat throughout the colder months. Some communities still celebrate the ancient solstice with modern Druids observing the celebration Alban Arthan which reveres the death of the Old Sun and rebirth of a New Sun.
Newgrange, an ancient tomb mound in County Meath, Ireland, lights up amazingly each winter solstice. The tomb mound is at least 1000 years older than Stonehenge and the roof box above the entrance of the tomb is coordinated perfectly with the light from the winter solstice sunrise. This creates a solid beam of light that travels through the tomb’s passage and illuminates the chamber for several minutes each year. The attraction is hugely popular and people have to enter an annual lottery to get a ticket to the event.
The Christmas connection
We’ve already highlighted how ancient civilisations and societies traditionally held celebrations at the winter solstice. The Romans had Saturnalia, yuletide celebrations were common in early Nordic and German settlements and early Christian societies did not want to miss out on the festivities. In an attempt to attract pagans to their faith, early Christian leaders began celebrating at the same time, leading to the development of Christmas. Many of the most popular Christmas traditions like mistletoe and Christmas trees, can be traced back to winter solstice celebrations.
Dong Zhi celebrations
Winter solstice is also a big deal in Chinese culture. Dong Zhi means ‘the arrival of winter’ and is a very important celebration. Families gather and celebrate, and it began as a celebration at the end of the harvest season. Dong Zhi is also closely linked with the spiritual concept of yin and yang as the seasons balance out. Feasts are packed with rich, filling foods, including rice balls, called tang yuan, dumplings, wontons, and mutton-based dishes.
Different solstices for different planets
Research from NASA suggests each planet in the Solar System has its own solstices and equinoxes. The length of seasons differs dependent on the planet’s tilt as well as its distance from the Sun. Uranus, for example, has an 82-degree tilt, so each season on this planet lasts 20 years!
The main axis of Stonehenge is positioned to align with the setting sun. While the history behind Stonehenge is unknown, many people believe its construction is closely linked with the solstice, and perhaps the Sun had religious or spiritual significance for the society that built it.
Today, the sunrise at Stonehenge is seen by hundreds who visit the monument for free so as many people as possible can experience the unique atmosphere of the winter solstice sunrise in a spiritually important location. It is also live streamed on YouTube by The National Trust.
5 winter solstice traditions Yule love to try
If you love a traditional Christmas congratulations! You’re well on the way to celebrating the winter solstice like a bonafide Pagan. It’s no secret that many Christmas traditions, like decking your halls with holly, gift giving, or bringing in an evergreen that ‘didn’t look that big outside', originated with Pagan celebrations of Yule.
Commencing at the winter solstice and continuing for up to 12 nights (Sound familiar?) or, as a Norse text explains, ‘Three nights or until the ale stops flowing’, these celebrations honour the passing of the year’s longest night.
Before the invention of electricity and fully stocked supermarkets, December would’ve been cold, dark, and treacherous with dwindling food supplies, so it’s no wonder people celebrated making it halfway through! Evidence of parallel celebrations across many other civilisations suggests nobody enjoyed getting up and going to sleep in the dark. Ever.
It’s time to dust off your stockings, hang onto your baubles, and get into some winter solstice traditions Yule really love.
1. Drive out the darkness
As the wheel of the year turns, the alignment at Stonehenge moves from sunrise on the summer solstice to sunset on the winter solstice. This heralds the beginning of Yuletide celebrations and the impending rebirth of the Sun.
Beginning as a sombre affair, Pagans still open these rituals in darkness by wearing dreary, shabby cloaks. Then candles and fires are lit and shouting, singing, banging pots, or playing instruments ensues as they throw off the dark outer layers to reveal clothing of bright red, white, or gold. These rituals were once performed by whole villages, running and dancing to light up every house, as well as single households, going room to room, driving out darkness and any lurking spirits by imitating the Sun’s return.
2. Don’t eat a Yule log
Before people headed out to a high street retailer for a decadent chocolate treat, Yule logs were exactly what they said on the tin. In England, they would be oak, while Scotland opted for birch, and France favoured cherry sprinkled with wine. Historically, Yule logs were huge, weighing several hundred pounds - forget fitting these in your fridge they often wouldn’t fully fit in the hearth!
Carried into the house with pomp and ceremony, the Yule log was decorated on the solstice with ribbons and boughs of pine, juniper, or cedar to give off sweet-smelling smoke once lit.
They symbolised the returning Sun and houses were protected from evil and blessed with prosperity. It was an honour to light the log but doing so with dirty hands risked serious bad luck. Even its ashes were sacred, being kept to light the following year’s log and ploughed into fields to promote good harvests.
3. Join the wild hunt
As celebrations began it was believed the Vanir god, Freyr, would ride his great boar, Gullinbursti, across Scandinavia to bring hope and renewed courage for the remaining winter.
But the veil between the living and dead is believed thinnest at the solstices, making them times to fear the dead and seek prophetic knowledge. The Morrighan, a goddess of both the living and the dead, was worshipped at this time in the UK and believed to lead a wild hunt by unleashing her hounds across Dartmoor and Exmoor.
She wasn’t the only one working hard. Jolnir-Odin, in his role as god of death, would lead his own wild hunt upon his eight-legged horse, Slepnir, the foam from whose mouth was said to create toadstools wherever it landed. Both hunts would sweep away the dead along with the dying year and any unsuspecting bystanders caught outside.
So, on second thoughts, maybe just stay inside...
4. No work and all feast make a good Pagan
With all that going on outside, it’s not surprising that historically Pagans preferred to stay in feasting. Depending on the deity being honoured, feasts might include a boar for the harvest and fertility god Freyr, or with an apple in its mouth for Cailleach Beare, a Celtic winter goddess. While Cernunnos and the Holly King demanded a feast of venison.
To make time for all that feasting, it was forbidden to work during Yuletide. The Germanic goddess, Berchta, was believed to punish anyone she caught doing so. An extended break across Jol/Jul (Scandinavian for Christmas and pronounced Yule) is still customary in the Nordic regions.
5. The king is dead, long live the king!
The rituals and celebrations for the solstice went on all night, ensuring homes were safe until the Sun returned. This moment marked light defeating darkness and an ascent from the bleakness of winter.
The battle between the Holly and Oak Kings, or Lugh and Balor is still reenacted to represent this. The Holly King, having reigned since the summer solstice, now falls to the Oak King. So, those who lost at the summer solstice, get ready to take revenge!
It also marks the rebirth of the Celtic horned god, Cernunnos, in his endless cycle of life, death, and rebirth. Therefore, it was customary to brave the cold (and encroaching hangover) to gather on tors and sacred areas as the Sun rose to sing, dance and welcome him back into the world, even if only until mid-summer.
8 ancient monuments built to honour the Winter Solstice
Dating back thousands of years, civilisations from across the globe have marked the changing of the seasons not only for cultural reasons but more importantly for farming practices.
Some held festivals whilst others erected monuments to track the path of the Sun as it crossed the sky. Many of these celebrations revolved around the two solstices, winter and summer.
Heralding from the Latin word ‘solstitium’, which means ‘Sun stands still’, a solstice is an astronomical term relating to when either of the Earth’s poles reaches its maximum tilt away from the Sun.
The winter solstice is the shortest and darkest day of the year, whilst the summer solstice is the longest and lightest. In the northern hemisphere, the winter solstice falls in December, whilst in the southern hemisphere it occurs in June.
Here are eight ancient monuments built to honour the winter solstice.
1. Newgrange, Ireland
Located not far from Dublin is one of the greatest wonders of the prehistoric world, Newgrange. Built around 3200 BC, making it a thousand years older than Stonehenge, the massive Neolithic passage tomb was constructed with one purpose in mind, to mark the winter solstice.
Just above the entrance to its main passage is an opening known as the ‘roof-box’ which coordinates perfectly with the light from the winter solstice sunrise. The effect caused is a solid beam of light which travels through the tomb’s passage and gradually illuminates the chamber within.
2. Stonehenge, England
Situated on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, Stonehenge is arguably the world's most famous prehistoric monument. The UNESCO World Heritage Site is lauded as the most architecturally sophisticated prehistoric stone circle in the world.
Although the exact reason behind its creation is still unknown and much debated, the most widespread and popular theory about Stonehenge suggests it was built as an ancient solar calendar.
The axis of the stones at the centre of Stonehenge marks the position of the rising Sun during the summer solstice and the sunset at the winter solstice.
3. Karnak Temple Complex, Egypt
Known as the ‘World's greatest open-air Museum’, the city of Luxor plays host to several Ancient Egyptian sites, one of which is Karnak, a temple complex whose construction began nearly 4,000 years ago. Comprising a multitude of temples, shrines, chapels and other buildings, the complex of ruins is uniquely illuminated during the winter solstice.
As the rising winter Sun shines through two pillars at the temple’s eastern entrance, the shrine to the sun god is lit up to spectacular effect.
4. Chichén Itzá, Mexico
The ancient Mayan city of Chichén Itzá is one of the most visited archaeological sites in the world and is marked as one of the New Seven Wonders of The World by UNESCO. The large city, known for its pyramid-shaped temples, is believed to date back over 1,500 years.
The most famous temple at Chichén Itzá is El Castillo, a step pyramid that dominates the centre of the city. Built by the Mayans to honour the serpent deity Kulkulkan, it was also constructed with astronomical considerations as well.
During the winter solstice, the Sun rises upward along the edge of the pyramid in a striking fashion. During the day, the southern and western sides of the temple are brightly illuminated, whilst the northern and eastern sides are left in darkness.
During the spring equinox, light and shadow create a pattern on the temple’s steps resembling a snake ascending to the top.
5. The Carnac Stones, France
Near the south coast of Brittany in northwestern France lies the Carnac Stones, a collection of megalithic sites consisting of stone alignments, tombs, burial mounds and menhirs (standing stones).
With a history dating back over 6,500 years, some of the stones located at the site have been linked to the solstices since they align with the sunset of both the winter and the summer solstices. The most famous of the alignments is that of Grand Menhir Brisé, a now broken menhir that once stood at a mighty 20 feet tall.
6. Maeshowe, Scotland
Built nearly 5,000 years ago and situated on the Scottish archipelago of Orkney, is the monumental Neolithic chambered tomb known as Maeshowe.
Like Newgrange, the burial mound contains a passageway and a central chamber that are lit up to dramatic effect during the winter solstice. For three weeks around the solstice, the setting Sun shines a light directly down the passage and into the central chamber, illuminating its back wall.
The rays then align with another monument some 800 metres towards the south-west, a standing stone known as the Barnhouse Stone. This marking of the winter solstice suggests Maeshowe could have been an ancient calendar used to signify the passing of midwinter.
7. Goseck Circle, Germany
Dated to 4900 BC, the recently discovered Neolithic henge structure known as Goseck Circle has been labelled the ‘German Stonehenge’. The 246-wide wooden circle had entrances that aligned with the rising and setting solstices.
Standing in the middle of the structure during the winter solstice, the Sun rose through the southeastern gate before setting through the southwestern one. The familiar structure has been seen in other parts of Europe, demonstrating how these ancient rings acted like primitive calendars.
8. Machu Picchu, Peru
The famous 15th-century Inca citadel known as Machu Picchu sits on an 8,000 ft mountain ridge in southern Peru. Believed to have been a royal estate or a sacred religious site, Machu Picchu joins Chichén Itzá on this list as being one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.
For the Inca, the winter solstice was a sacred day as it honoured one of their main deities, the sun god. So they marked the occasion within the construction of Machu Picchu itself.
One of its buildings is known as the Temple of the Sun and during the morning of the winter solstice, the first rays of light shine through one of two windows in the temple, illuminating the ceremonial stone within. The second window is positioned so the first rays of light during the summer solstice shine down on the ceremonial stone.