Officially, according to the calendars, the shortest day or winter solstice this year is tomorrow, December 22. This is because the actual time of the solstice is 4.48am UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) which is equivalent to GMT (Greenwich Mean Time). And that means it will be at 5.48am CET (Central European Time) in most of continental Europe while it is on December 21 between 8.48pm PST (Pacific Standard Time) on the west coast and 11.48pm EST (Eastern Standard Time) on the east coast of mainland America.
Confused? Well, don’t forget that it’s only the winter solstice or shortest day in the northern hemisphere. South of the equator it is the summer solstice or longest day but I am not going to get involved with exact times there.
The winter solstice is also closely associated with and often celebrated as Yule but, in reality, the Pagan festival of Yule runs for 12 days.
The winter solstice itself is the first day of winter and, in Pagan traditions, marks the rebirth of the Sun God or the Horned God of the Hunt and celebrates the return to hours of daylight being longer than hours of darkness.
Bonfires have played an important part in the festivities, as they still do in many areas in Spain today, being long established allegorical symbols of cleansing and purity.
It is widely accepted that, as Christianity spread, the ancient Roman winter celebration of Saturnalia and Pagan Yuletide were seen as being an ideal time for Christmas. Never mind the historical fact that Jesus was not born in December, nor the highly unlikely situation of shepherds being outside in the cold and snow tending their sheep. Instead, the sheep would have been brought off the hills already and put safely into their winter quarters.
Oh, and just to add to the issue of the date; if the bible story is correct in that Joseph and Mary travelled to Bethlehem because of a census, it cannot have been in the winter. Censuses were held when it was safer for people to travel.
Today, many Pagans continue to celebrate the winter solstice with some also choosing to celebrate Yule on the same day as the Christmas holiday. It is convenient and makes sense as the Christian winter holiday still falls inside the 12 days of Yuletide.
The Christian and Pagan celebrations are remarkably similar. Although existing well before Christianity, Yuletide includes decorated Yule trees, Yule decorations, Yule gifts, a Yule feast and the burning of a Yule log. Then there is the Ancient Druid influence of introducing the sacred mistletoe plant into the festivities.
Doesn’t it just make you wonder where today’s Christmas celebrations had their origins? One thing is definite, they most certainly did not start in Bethlehem on a bitterly cold December night.
Happy Solstice everyone. Remember, from tomorrow days get longer again.