Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

The longest night of the year

The winter solstice settles on 21 December this year, which means it’s the day with the least amount of sunlight. It’s the official first day of winter, although people have been braving the cold for weeks, huddled in coats and scarves and probably wool socks. It’s easy to pass over the winter solstice because of the holidays; however, many traditions center around the solstices and equinoxes, and even Christmas has borrowed some ideas from the midwinter celebration. Below are a few facts about the winter solstice and the influence it has had on religion.

1.   The winter solstice occurs when the sun at noon is in its lowest position in the sky, which puts it over the Tropic of Capricorn (22-23 December).

2.   The astronomical solstice is 21 December, but midwinter or Yule covers a few weeks during the time of the solstice. During medieval times, this period would stretch from the feast of St. Nicholas (6 December) and Christmas Day, then from Christmas to Epiphany or Candlemas.

snow-21979_640 (1)
Winter. Public domain via Pixabay.

3.   It is most likely untrue that Christmas is the birth-date of Christ. However, it was likely set on 25 December to coincide with the already well-established Pagan holidays. In ancient times, the winter solstice was celebrated as the birthday of the two gods Sol Invictus (the invincible sun) and Mithras.

4.   In contemporary Paganism, Yule celebrates the rebirth of the sun with the winter solstice, as it is the darkest time of the year with the days get longer after the solstice.

5.   The Christmas traditions of gift-giving, candles, mistletoe, evergreens, holly, yule logs, Old Father Time, red and white colors, and others all come from Latin and Germanic yuletide celebrations. The word “yule” is thought to have originated from the Anglo-Saxon word for “yoke,” although it is possible it is connected to the words for sun in Cornish and Breton.

6.   “Calendar customs are cultural expressions of repetitive seasonal rhythms.” Generally, holidays and customs follow along the changing of the seasons. Midsummer and midwinter especially pair together as the longest day and longest night of the year.

Headline image credit: Winter forest. Public domain via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

There are currently no comments.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *