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How the Winter Solstice was Important to Ancient Societies

Although the summer solstice that sticks in our mind, it has an opposite number in the winter. Falling exactly six months after the summer event (for example, if Summer Solstice is on 21st June, the winter solstice is the 21st December), it was just as important to ancient societies. Winter solstice marks the beginning of winter and is the shortest day in terms of daylight. After this date, the daylight hours get longer and we can tentatively look forward to spring. We explained in our Summer Solstice article that the Earth has a wobble. December 21st-23rd is the time of year when the northern hemisphere starts its slow turn back towards the sun. Similarly, the southern hemisphere starts its turn away.

A Quick Overview of the Winter Solstice

winter solsticeAlthough less “famous” today than its warmer-weather cousin, we do know that the winter solstice played an important part in the lives of ancient societies. In the past, human civilisation was far more dependent on the changing of the seasons than it is today. Planning the agricultural year was vital – we needed to have a sense of when the frosts would end and when the sowing season was likely to start.  Although these varied, there were environmental markers. Knowing the date of the Winter Solstice was vital to this.

The Ancient Romans: Saturnalia

You may have heard of Saturnalia, the ancient Roman festival that had some influence on modern Christmas. It was a celebration of the winter solstice – the end of the old year and the start of the new one (named in honour of Saturn). It started by our modern calendar on 17th December. It was initially one night but after a while tended to last for a week, extending to the night of the actual solstice – anywhere between the 21st and the 23rd – and into the following morning. Undoubtedly, it was the most important festival in the Roman calendar. People exchanged gifts and slaves won temporary “freedom”.

The Mayan Calendar

The Maya’s understanding of the natural sciences was astounding. Their colossal cities and immense pyramids stand as testament to how advanced they had become. Their knowledge of astronomy was far in advance, even of the European settlers who arrived in the 15th century. They planned their lives around the agricultural year, of which the winter solstice was one of two landmark periods. We don’t know much about what and how they celebrated as many of their records were destroyed, but spectacular star field effect inside the pyramid at Tulum on the Caribbean cost suggests its importance.

Ancient Egypt’s Sun Worship

The Egyptians had hundreds of gods, but few were as important as those representing the sun. The most famous and important god Ra was a sun god, as was Aten – the minor deity elevated under “The Heretic King” Akhenaten. The most important temple in all ancient Egypt was Karnak. Its impressive ruins today dwarf anything seen anywhere else in Egyptian lands. Most people do no realise that its positioning and location was deliberately and carefully chosen. It is the only place in Luxor (or Waset as the city was then known) where the line of the temple processional way is perpendicular to the River Nile. Every winter solstice, the sunrise hits the temple and lights up the chapels of the sun gods.

Ancient Britons and Stonehenge

For obvious and numerous reasons, British cultural heritage has come to associate our greatest monument with the summer solstice. But Stonehenge is also aligned with the winter solstice. While neopagans and history enthusiasts are increasingly visiting Stonehenge in winter, it still gets a lot less coverage. We know very little about the ancient Britons and what they believed. However, we do know that they placed great importance on the agricultural seasons. These islands had, and still have, erratic weather. At sunset on the Winter Solstice, the star still aligns with the Slaughter Stone and the Altar Stone, flooding the monument with light.