Most of us will trudge through the winter complaining of the short days and long nights, never realizing the sun appears seconds earlier and lingers seconds longer each day till one evening in March when we look at the orange sunset and glance at our watch and think, “wow, six o’clock and still light.”
But back when humans lived with the Earth, not just “on” it, the winter solstice did not go unnoticed. There have probably been winter solstice observances in the northern hemisphere from the time humans huddled together seeking warmth and support and longing for the days when the sun would once again reclaim the skies. For sure, there have been winter solstice observances as far back as oral and/or written tradition go.
Sankranti, the Indian celebration of the solstice, is believed to be at least 30,000 years old and is still one of the most prominent of Hindu celebrations.
Many people associate the 5,000-year-old Stonehenge with the winter solstice but there are monoliths that predate it. A cairn or stone monolith in County Meath, Scotland, dates back to 3,300 B.C. The cairn covers nearly an acre and has a passageway 60 feet long. At sunrise on the winter solstice sunlight penetrates all the way to the rear wall of the cairn. Newgrange in Ireland is a megalithic site dating back to 3,200 B.C., and Maeshowe, on the Orkney Islands was constructed around 2,500 B.C.
As Christianity grew, and especially as it spread westward, many of the aspects of pagan solstice celebrations were incorporated into its new Christmas celebration. The idea of yule logs, evergreens and gift giving were all holdovers from pagan celebrations.
And the winter solstice did not go unnoticed by the aboriginal peoples of North America. The Sun Dagger, a large petroglyph created 1,000 years ago by ancestors of today’s Pueblos, stands atop Fajada Butte in New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon. Along with the summer and winter solstices, this calendar also marks the equinoxes and the 19-year cycle of the moon. Calendar One is a natural amphitheater in Vermont with a cairn, constructed by native peoples, in its center that marks the equinoxes and solstices.
Regardless of what “official” holiday you celebrate this month know that (especially in the northern hemisphere) before there was Jesus, before there was Mohammed and before there was Buddha there was acknowledgement and observation of the winter solstice. And there was celebration of the rebirth of day and the rekindling of the sun’s warmth. And on Sunday, Dec. 23, the earth will once again begin to roll towards that warmth and light.