THURSDAY, DECEMBER 22: Get your cold-weather gear ready—today at 5:30 a.m. UTC marks Winter Solstice 2011, also known as the first day of winter, in the Northern Hemisphere. Technically, a winter solstice can occur on more than just our planet; on Earth, the North Pole is furthest from the sun during the winter solstice. (Wikipedia has details.) Tonight is also the longest night of the year.
The winter solstice may go by unnoticed by many in the 21st century, but in nearly every culture prior to this era, winter solstice meant a festival, an important turn in the seasonal year and an astrological phenomenon. (Read our story about contemporary Yule customs—with recipes!) The Roman festival of Saturnalia was celebrated for a week in December and honored the God Saturn; ancients who based their calendars on the rebirth of sun gods marked this time as a New Year, since the sun is “reborn” and begins the cycle of increasingly longer days.
In the days before global shipping, communities had to be prepared by winter solstice with several months’ worth of prepared food, and the last big feast before deep winter often included freshly slaughtered cattle and alcoholic beverages that had been fermenting for nearly a year. Neolithic monuments—particularly Stonehenge—reflect the astronomical phenomenon, and even today people flock to this ancient monument to witness the sight-line pointing to the winter solstice sunset. (Learn more about this family-friendly event in an article from The Guardian.)
Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.