Since ancient times, the winter solstice has been seen as an important astronomical occurrence, celebrated as the rebirth of sunlight and the gradual return of spring after the darkest period of the year. The word solstice comes from the Latin sōlstitium, which translates to the standing still of the sun, reflecting the way the sun appears to halt its progress across the sky, and both the summer and winter solstices usher in a new season.
Astronomical events like the solstice were often used to guide certain activities, particular in agrarian societies, where climate, the weather, and indeed how many hours of sunshine there were in a day, were paramount for human survival. Monuments such as Stonehenge, Ireland’s Newgrange, and Maeshowe in Scotland, are thought to have been used by ancient peoples to track the progress of the sun.
One of the most well-recognised winter solstice festivals is that of Yule, first celebrated by ancient Norse peoples of Scandinavia from the winter solstice through January. To reflect and celebrate the return of the sun, people would find burn large logs, which became known as Yule logs, and the feast would last for as long as the log burned. The Norse believed that each spark from the fire would represent a new piglet or calf that would be burn in the coming year. In China, the winter solstice has for centuries been observed with the Dong Zhi festival, thought to reflect the philosophy of yin and yang, which honours the balance and harmony between all things. The winter solstice is also celebrated in Iran with a festival called Yaldā Night, a time for friends and family to gather to eat, drink, and read poetry together. Watermelon and pomegranates are popular as the red colour in these fruits are said to symbolise the colour of dawn and the glow of life.