Solstice Tales
by Helen Ware




As good astronomers we all know that the Winter Solstice is the time the Sun reaches its southernmost rising and setting points. We know the Sun’s apex at noon is at the lowest point of the year. We know that on this day, daylight hours are shorter than night time hours. But few people realize that the Solstice celebrations of ancient times directly influence our modern holiday traditions.

The importance of agriculture in early societies made the seasons very important. Spring and summer were times for new life; fall a time of harvest. Winter, cold and dark, was a time of little sunlight. People feared it might disappear completely. Music, bonfires, and feasts were used to honor the Sun back to full strength. Over 5,000 years of human history have enfolded this season in rich garb, in many layers of celebrations, folklore, and traditions.

Most of our traditions come from the early Romans. In the 3rd century, Emperor Aurelian established December 25th as the birthday of the "Invincible Sun." The Christian church in 273 AD selected that day as the birthday of Jesus. In 336 AD the celebration of the "Invincible Sun" became Christianized as the Birth of Jesus.

The tradition of decorating with evergreens comes from a combination of ancient cultures. Egyptians used green palm branches to symbolize life’s triumph over death on the shortest day of the year. The early Romans used evergreens to honor their god of agriculture during their winter festival of Saturnalia. The Druids decorated oak trees with golden apples. A custom of the Middle Ages was to decorate a tree with red apples to symbolize the feast of Adam and Eve on December 24th. Roman temples were decorated with evergreens to symbolize life’s continuity.

The stringing of lights or placing candles in windows also came from the ancient Solstice feasts. During the feast of Saturnalia, Romans kept lamps burning to ward off the spirits of darkness. In pagan Scandinavia, bonfires were made and the Yule log was burned to strengthen the Sun. Ancients lit candles, bonfires, and anything they could find to celebrate the return of the light.

The colors we associate with Christmas come from these ancient times. The Romans lit white, gold, green, and red candles during Saturnalia. Red candles symbolized the fire and heat of the returning Sun. The Druids used red, green, and white to color their celebrations.

Mistletoe was considered by the Druids to be magical. They used bright holly and evergreen to symbolize the continuation of life through the dark and cold of winter. In pagan Scandinavia, mistletoe represented the fertility of Zeus. Mistletoe grows on dead and rotting wood; in early Europe it symbolized the mystery of life springing from the dead of winter.

The wreath was a symbol of the ever-turning wheel of life that will bring back the Sun and the spring.

Oh, and that fruitcake you keep getting for Christmas? You can blame the early Romans for that. Their Saturnalia festival was the start of the tradition of visiting friends and bringing gifts, like fruitcake, candles, dolls, jewelry, and incense.


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