At 5:30 am on December 22, this year’s winter solstice will occur for those of us living in the Northern Hemisphere (summer solstice for those in the Southern Hemisphere). The date is commonly known as midwinter, but astronomically speaking, the winter solstice marks the point at which the polar hemisphere’s axial tilt is farthest from the Sun, resulting in the shortest day and longest night of the year. The sun’s maximum elevation in the sky is also lowest on this date. Throughout world history, this mark of the subsequent gradual reversal of winter’s shortening days has been observed with holidays and festivals.
At least as far back as the Neolithic period, the solstice was observed as a significant event, as suggested by such sites as Stonehenge in England and Newgrange in Ireland. Both of these prehistoric monuments were designed so that their primary axes were precisely aligned on a sight-line toward the sun on the winter solstice (sunrise at Newgrange, sunset at Stonehenge). Likely the winter solstice in this period was a time of great uncertainty, when people wondered if they would survive the coming winter. Livestock would have been slaughtered at midwinter so that the animals would not have to be fed during the coming lean time, and wine and beer made earlier in the year would have been fully fermented and ready to be consumed at this last festival before the harshest of the cold months.
Yule (geol in Old English, jól in Old Norse) was originally a 60-day tide among late Scandinavian Norse and West Germanic tribes the began at the lunar midwinter. It is not to be confused with the similarly named modern Wiccan celebration which borrows from but is distinct from the Northern Germanic one. It is from this period of Juletid that our modern term Yuletide derives. By the late Viking Age (which spanned the 8th through 11th centuries), Yule celebrations had morphed into a solstice festival that incorporated various other northern European traditions such as the Germanic feast of Modresnach, the Swedish sacrifices of Midvinterblót, and the Teutonic Feast of the Dead. In 960, King Håkon of Norway signed a law that Jul was to be celebrated on the eve of December 25 so as to align it with Christmas.
As for the date itself, Julius Caesar established December 25 as the date of the winter solstice in Europe in his Julian calendar in 46 BCE. Since then, the difference between the calendar year of 365.25 days and the solar year (i.e. the time it takes the Sun to return to the same position in the seasonal cycle as seen from Earth) of 365.2421897 days moved the day of the solstice forward by about three days every four centuries so that it occurred on December 12 during the 16th century. In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII (pictured above) wished to restore the correspondence between the seasons and the calendar, but in developing his defining period of major Christian feasts, he did not refer back to the time of Caesar but only to the Council of Nicea which convened in 352. He thus did away with the 10-day error that arose from the 4th to the 16th century but kept the 3-day error from the 1st century BCE through the 4th century AD–resulting in the northern winter solstice being marked on about December 22.
In the Gregorian calendar, the solstice sill fluctuates by a day or two each year, occurring as early as December 21 or as late as December 23, but in the long term the date only fluctuates by about one day every 3000 years owing in part to the corrective mechanism of a leap year every fourth year, when an extra day is added to the calendar in February. Of course, since a solar year is slightly less than 365.25 days, an exception to this rule exists: years evenly divisible by 100 are not leap years unless they are also evenly divisible by 400. The year 2000 was thus a leap year, but the year 2100 will not be.
Which is all well and good, but as I look out my window and see clouds gathering, I think it best to refer to Dr. Seuss rather than Pope Gregory. Any of you thinking to make your way to Solla Sollew this season might want to take heed of the torrential rains known as the Midwinter Jicker, for as the chap in the slicker once said:
The Midwinter Jicker came early this year
And it’s not going to be very comfy ’round here.
Any fool would get out! So I’ve packed up my things
And I’m off to my granddaddy’s, out in Palm Springs.
Happy Yuletide everyone!