December 21 will be the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice. The northern hemisphere will be tilted farther away from the sun than at any other time of the year. It will also be the sun’s lowest arch at midday. This is, of course, all a result of the earth’s angle of rotation (23.5 degrees) as it orbits around the sun. It’s the opposite in the southern hemisphere. It’s the first day of summer down there.
Ancient cultures didn’t know about the earth’s rotation and orbit, and for people of higher latitudes, winter was a time filled with apprehension. As the days shortened and the sun drifted further south in the midday sky, people feared it would disappear completely. They’d be left in total darkness.
After the solstice they had reason to celebrate. Fear and foreboding were transformed into joy and optimism. It was a time to celebrate birth and rebirth, longer days, and the coming of spring. Solstice celebrations can be traced to most ancient cultures. It was perhaps the most widely celebrated natural event.
A pagan festival associated with the winter solstice is largely responsible for our celebrating Christmas on December 25. Ancient Rome used the solstice as the day to celebrate Saturn, the god of farming. By their calendar the solstice occurred on or near December 25. Pope Julius I is generally credited with the selection of December 25 to celebrate Christ’s birth, ostensibly to replace the pagan celebration and help convert pagans to Christianity.
“Yule” is a reference to the winter solstice of Anglo-Saxon origin. A pagan ritual associated with the solstice burned a “Yule log” and symbolically replaced it with a “Yule tree” adorned with lighted candles. Mistletoe is also rooted (pun intended!) in pagan ritual. These past rituals in celebration of the solstice are now our Christmas traditions.
Here’s wishing you and yours a very Merry Christmas. Or as we used to say back in the 1970’s: “Have a Cool Yule!”
Natural North Dakota is supported by NDSU Central Grasslands Research Extension Center and Minot State University-Bottineau, and by the members of Prairie Public. Thanks to Sunny 101.9 in Bottineau for their recording services.
Listen To Radio Online
Log-on and dig deep into the news of the day. It’s all online in our Public NewsRoom.» Visit the Public NewsRoom
Your contributions make quality radio programming possible.» Pledge your support today.