The Winter Solstice is nigh: 21st December at 17.11 to be precise! This, the shortest day, marks the onset of the midwinter festival of darkness and light in the northern hemisphere, although the celebration is largely superimposed upon by the syncretic festival of Christmas: the birth of a Son for the birth of the Sun, as it were… The solstice is when the Sun appears at its minimum elevation in the sky, and travels its shortest path from east to west after rising, hence the derivation of the word from latin: Sol Stitium , meaning the ‘sun stands’.
Christmas has a traditional period lasting 12 days, and in more ancient times this was marked by for what was for most people, the only true prolonged holiday of the working year. 12 is itself an interesting number in this context, as there are 12 months in the solar year, and people used to fancy that they might predict the weather for the coming year by ascribing the conditions on each day of the festial period to the equivalent month. 12 was the number of the Apostles of the Middle Eastern religion’s stories of their ‘bringer of light’.
So … what do the twelve days mean? It is necessary to examine the Christian and Pagan aspects of the period. For Christians, the period starts at nightfall on Christmas Eve (24th Dec) with the festival of Nativity and ends with the festival of Epiphany (celebrating Christ’s first worshipping as God in Nicene christianity), celebrated 12 days later. The cosmic (ie – pagan) reason for the 12 day festival probably lies in our ability to perceive the lengthening of days following the Solstice. 12 days after the solstice, you can definitely tell things are getting lighter again and its time to get back to work, but before this the rate of change appears so slow that our inner clocks (and those of nature) can barely perceive the difference.
To the ancient pagans of the Roman culture, the Solstice fell as part of the festivities of Saturnalia – usually commencing on the 17th of December and lasting a week, and it is from these traditions that many of our achristian Christmas festivities can be traced (holidays, gift-giving, feasting, lords serving the servants etc). Saturn (Kronos to the Greeks) was the god who in Greek myths ruled over the Golden Age of men. His day of the week (Saturday) preceded that of the Sun (Sunday) so it is fitting that his festival marked the advent of the returning Sun. In the later Roman empire, a festival celebrating the rebirth of the sun was celebrated on 25th December – the Dies natalis of Sol Invictus, instituted by Aurelian in the 3rdC CE. Just why it took them so long to cotton on to this is an interesting point, and the reason for it might just be tied up in the cultural influences their conquests in the north of Europe had upon the Empire…
When the Sun stands, and the days are dark, it is time to make fires and bring light and be merry – see you on the other side!