The winter solstice is probably the most ancient festival of all. Evidence for its celebration going back at least 30, 000 years and is found on every continent. The word solstice is derived from Latin and means ‘sun stands still’. The sun usually rises at a different point on the horizon each day (it only rises due east at the spring equinox). It travels north-east to its furthest position at the summer solstice and appears to stand still for three days before heading south-east, reaching its southernmost position at the winter solstice where it seems to rest again for three days before heading north once more.
We experience changing seasons because the axis of the Earth – an imaginary line between the north and south poles – is tilted from true by 23.5 degrees. As our planet revolves around the sun, this means that part of the earth tilts towards the sun, then away again. Between June and September, the Northern Hemisphere is tilted toward the sun and gets more light, experiencing the season of summer. At the same time the Southern Hemisphere experiences winter. Between December and March, the Northern Hemisphere is tilted away from the sun and experiences less light and warmth, while the Southern Hemisphere enjoys summer. Just how much sunlight you experience depends on the latitude you occupy. By June 21st there are twenty-four hours of daylight above the Arctic Circle, while below the Antarctic Circle there are twenty-four hours of darkness. Without the tilt in the Earth’s axis, we would have the same degree of light and warmth – or dark and cold – all year round and have no seasons at all; the sun’s rays would always be directly over the Equator. The solstices and equinoxes are the four stations of the sun during the year, represented by an equal armed cross and there is a frequent connection between sun gods and crosses.
At midwinter and midsummer, the sun apparently changes its course. In midwinter having reached the lowest point in its path, it turns about and begins to mount the skies; conversely at midsummer, having attained the highest point, the sun seems to turn about once more and descend. Consequently, it was often imagined the sun god was born at the winter solstice and grew until midsummer, afterwards declining towards his death at the midwinter solstice, before being reborn and the whole cycle beginning again. The Sanskrit root of the word summer means ‘half year’, suggesting the light and dark halves of the year were marked by the two solstices. This division of the year by the solstices into two halves was common in the ancient world. The Saxon year began at the winter solstice and the summer solstice marked its mid-point.
The winter solstice is generally considered to be the start of winter, and the three winter months are reckoned as December, January and February. However, the ‘solar winter’- the period with the fewest hours of daylight and the weakest sunlight – stretches from November 1st to February 1st with the solstice marking Midwinter. Though the Winter Solstice is the shortest day of the year, it is not the date of either the earliest sunset or the latest sunrise. The earliest sunset occurs around Little Yule on 13th December, and the latest sunrise around New Year at the beginning of January.
The sun governs the pattern of life on Earth, its cycles dividing the hours, days, months and years, and the round of sowing, growth, harvest and decay. It is only the movement of the sun that makes life possible. The Egyptians called the sun the divine creator of all things, the master of time and the seasons. Its regular daily and seasonal rotations stand as a symbol of cosmic order. From where we stand on earth, each day the sun seems to rise in the east, scattering the powers of darkness and diffusing light and fertility as it climbs to its zenith at noon. Then it declines, descending into the west and eventually sinking below the horizon, only to return with the following dawn.
Ancient man would have realised that we depend on the sun for life – in the summer the long hours of daylight and warmth make the crops grow but in the winter darkness and cold, they shrivel and die. Each day, up to the winter solstice, the sun grows weaker and weaker. Each day it is lower and lower on the horizon, and each day the hours of daylight grow fewer. Darkness is spreading; everything is winding down, threatening to come to a standstill. As the Roman writer Lucan (39-65 CE) described it:
“Nature’s rhythm stops. The night becomes longer and the day keeps waiting. The ether does not obey its law; and the whirling firmament becomes motionless, as soon as it hears the magic spell. Jupiter – who drives the celestial vault that turns on its fast axis – is surprised by the fact that it does not want to turn.”
If the sun does not regenerate then time will come to an end, life will be extinguished, and the world will return to the dark womb of night from which it emerged. And when the sun decays towards its death at Yule, that primal chaos threatens to return.
Sheltered in our warm houses and able to buy food from the supermarket all year round, we find it hard to imagine what winter meant for our ancestors. During the summer, the long hours of light and warmth provided a bountiful harvest of greenery, corn and fruit. Animals had plenty of grazing and reproduced, supplying meat, milk and cheese. But then winter came. Darkness and cold increased daily, causing plants to shrivel and animals expired while struggling to find fodder. Humans died from cold and hunger. Every day, the sun seemed to grow weaker, as if it too were dying. Every day, it rose lower and lower in the sky. Darkness and death threatened to overwhelm the world forever.
And yet, in the very moment of greatest gloom, the sun was reborn. Life and hope were rekindled – the light would grow, warmth would increase, spring, summer and harvest would come. The Wheel of the Year, which had been briefly stilled, would spin on.
It is impossible to separate the celebrations of the winter solstice and Christmas, as all of the myths, symbols and customs of Christmas are Pagan in origin. But while Christians see time as linear and believe that the birth of the divine child came but once, two thousand years ago, Pagans view time as cyclical, and know that the Child of Light, and with him the world, is reborn and renewed every year.
© Anna Franklin, Yule, History Lore and Celebration, Lear Books 2010
 Dr E.C.Krupp, Beyond the Blue Horizon, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1992