Ever since childhood, when I learned the Winter Solstice is the shortest day of the year, it’s held a special fondness. The shortest day means the longest night, and between the lights at Christmas and a budding interest in astronomy, the longest night was a special time. Back then, I thought that this was the day of the earliest sunset, that that would give longest viewing of lights and the stars until bedtime. It would be years before I learned the earliest sunset occurred about two weeks earlier, and sunrise would continue to happen later in the morning until about a week into January. Even so, the Winter Solstice still holds a special place simply for what it is: the southernmost (in the Northern Hemisphere) travel of the sun before it begins its slow climb northward.
It’s commonly said that the ancients celebrated the solstice, but I think that’s a bit of a misnomer. Rather, they more likely celebrated events scheduled to occur at that time. The wheeling constellations in the sky; the phases of the moon; and the height of the sun and where it rises and sets all served as natural calendars. Long before almanacs and freebee calendars, our ancestors looked to the sky as a means of reckoning the passage of time. Some point to the Roman festivals of Saturnalia (which got so rowdy that even Caligula wanted them to cool it), others to the Kalends of January, which was the Roman New Year, as evidence of solstice observances. Some like to point to the Feast of the Invincible Sun, which fell on December 25. But Saturnalia ran from December 17 to 23, and the Kalends of January was on January 1. As for Sol Invictus, by the time Emperor Aurelian made it an official cult, the Julian Calendar had already crept forward about a couple of days, which put the Winter Solstice in 274 AD about December 22. Besides, it seems the cult of Sol Invictus may not have celebrated the solstice. Go figure.
Outside the Roman Empire, the solstice may not have had as much weight as we might think. Clement A Miles, author of Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, Christian and Pagan, made the argument that various year end rituals tended to get lumped together and even moved over time. Celtic New Year fell about the end of October, and in November for Germanic tribes. And when it came to calculating when Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem, some Christians had already come up with December 25 long before the cult of Sol Invictus became official.
I suspect that if we could speak to one of those ancient peoples, and mentioned their celebration of the Winter Solstice, they’d give us an odd look and tell us what they were actually celebrating, and none of it would be the shortest day of the year. If they knew something about our times, they might ask if what we celebrate each December 25 is the date on the calendar, or Christmas, the event that falls on that day. Even Neolithic monuments where sun and shadow seem to line up on the Winter Solstice may not be a good indication of observing the solstice itself. If there was any observance of the Winter Solstice, it was so far back in time that it’s no longer remembered.
That might be a bit spoil-sport, like someone watching a Star Wars and picking apart, well, just about everything. But pointing out that the ancient Romans and their European contemporaries didn’t observe the Winter Solstice doesn’t change that it’s a handy calendar reference. It was the observation that the solstices and equinoxes were occurring earlier as the years rolled on that showed the Julian Calendar was a bit fast, which ultimately led to the more accurate Gregorian Calendar. Keeping an accurate calendar is very important for things like knowing when the last and first frost usually occurs, not to mention rent and taxation.
When you think about the most obvious calendar in the sky, the moon, keeping it straight with the seasons is especially important for things like planting and harvest. A calendar by the phases of the moon runs about 11 days short of the solar calendar, which would shift in respect to the seasons. Either you stick with a lunar calendar and disregard the solar (as the Muslims do for their religious calendar), or stick with the solar and disregard the lunar cycles (as does the Gregorian and Julian calendars), or incorporate both, as with the Chinese, Hebrew, and other calendars. To use both, you have to periodically insert an extra month, or annually extra days to bring the two in line, just as we do with leap day.
That makes a reference point, such as the Winter Solstice, an important anchor, especially in reconciling a lunar and solar calendar with the seasons. Was this the point of Neolithic monuments like Stonehenge? Who knows? It certainly would have been a handy reference.
Of course, we really don’t know. For that matter, no one knows who built monuments like Stonehenge. It may well be that, ten thousand years from now, archaeologists examining the ancient city of Manhattan might concluded the streets were aligned with sunrise on certain dates, a happenstance phenomenon. It would be a hoot if the same thing happened at Neolithic monuments, and they added features like heel stones so people would know where to stand to see something really neat.
No matter. Today is the solstice, arriving as regular as clockwork long before our kind walked the earth, and continuing as long as the planet keeps its tilt and orbit about the sun. It’s just ironic that we moderns who note this day simply for what it is may give it greater observance than the ancients ever did.