by Dawn Cox

At this time of year our thoughts turn towards traditional holidays such as Thanksgiving and Christmas, but did you know there are pagan holidays occurring, as well? The Winter Solstice was celebrated before written history and is still celebrated around the world today.

The Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year, takes place on December 21st and is recognized around the world as an important day in many cultures. The word “solstice” comes from the Latin words “sol” meaning “sun” and “sistere” meaning “to stand still.” In ancient days the sun moved so slowly across the sky it appeared to stop.

The Egyptians may not have had the evergreen trees pagans view as symbols of eternal life, but they did have palm trees, which served the same purpose in their culture. They decorated their homes with palm branches during the Winter Solstice.

In Old Europe, Winter Solstice was known as “Yule,” from the Norse, meaning “wheel.” Nordic peoples believed this was the time of year when the wheel of the year was at its lowest point, ready to rise again.

It is widely believed that the Roman festival of Saturnalia, introduced around 217 BC, is one of the earliest Winter Solstice celebrations. The Romans honored Saturn, the god of agriculture and the harvest, with visits to friends and gift-giving. They would decorate their evergreen trees with small pieces of metal and replicas of their fertility god, Bacchus. The pagan Romans also placed 12 candles on the tree in honor of their sun god, Apollo.

In Old Europe, Winter Solstice was known as “Yule,” from the Norse, meaning “wheel.” Nordic peoples believed this was the time of year when the wheel of the year was at its lowest point, ready to rise again. In Scandinavia, the pagan Norse celebrated Yule from December 21st for 12 days, until January 1st. This time meant the return of the sun and an end to winter darkness, and that the fields would soon be ready for tilling again. One Scandinavian tale tells of Norse pagan fathers and sons bringing home huge logs, which they would place in the middle of the village and set on fire. The people would feast until the log burned out, which could take as many as 12 days.

Today we decorate our Christmas trees, celebrate the 12 days of Christmas, give gifts, light candles, and enjoy the sweet Yule log dessert during Winter Solstice, just like those who came before us.