Winter Solstice: Annual Test of Survival
The northern hemisphere’s Winter Solstice has had a major impact on civilizations in Europe, Asia, and North America. Early humans on these continents felt the fear and uncertainty as days became shorter and cold limited the availability of food and other life-sustaining resources. Each year the question had to be asked: “Will we survive?”
Every year, the Sun’s daily crossing sank lower and lower in the southern sky until it slowed and then stopped sinking. After a few weeks, the arc of the Sun began to slowly rise, bringing longer days followed by warmer temperatures. Spring returned and food and resources became more plentiful.
It is easy to understand so many pagan rituals and celebrations in northern cultures occurred near the shortest day of the year. It is also easy to understand why many religions adopted or adapted the solstice pagan rituals as their own. Most notably Christmas was conveniently established on or near the same day as the Roman observances of the season.
…around the time of the winter solstice, Romans observed Juvenalia, a feast honoring the children of Rome…In addition, members of the upper classes often celebrated the birthday of Mithra, on December 25. Mithra was an ancient Persian [infant] god of light…
December Winter Solstice: It’s a Upper North Thing
Winter Solstice of the northern hemisphere is a regional phenomenon. People who live between 25° north and 25° south latitude cannot be faulted for feeling that it is a non-event. Their length of day between Summer and Winter is relatively insignificant compared to the drastic changes experienced by people farther north.
For people in the southern hemisphere, our Winter Solstice is their Summer Solstice. In fact, the Earth is closest to the Sun in late December and early January so the dark, cold days of our Winter Solstice are completely contrary to everything they experience at that time of year.
Did the Winter Solstice Reinforce Religious Authority?
Europe and the Middle East civilizations would have felt the impact of the Winter season. Each year people would be faced with ever-worsening conditions, possibly creating life-threatening situations. People who had experienced many solstices may have become oracles of hope by predicting a return to longer days and warmer weather.
The wise predictors of the return of the longer days would have seemed mystical leading to dependence on their guidance in all matters of life. It would be understandable that people who had no concept of how Earth’s seasonal cycles might begin to see an older person as magical when they consistently predicted the end of the cold and shorter days.
Knowledge of the Winter Solstice, cycles of the Moon, and other astronomical cycles would give rise to religious followers who felt their lives might be dependent on the whims and good graces of deities. By the time these religious movements expanded to regions South of the 25th latitude, they were massive social organizations that offered meaning and explanations to life.
South American Cultures Largely Ignored the Solstices
It is noteworthy that Mayan, Incan, and Astec civilizations observed and followed the apparent movement of the Sun, Moon, planets, and stars; however, there was no corresponding celebration or significance to the Winter Solstice in either the northern or southern hemispheres. Astronomy was important in determining the best conditions for planting crops; however, that time was influenced by ideal weather conditions (rainy or dry seasons) rather than a time that would correspond to the Spring planting conditions in the northern hemisphere.
The Reason For the Season
Clearly the northern Winter Solstice does not have a worldwide impact; however, for cultures above 25° North latitude, it has been a vital observance. The Winter Solstice has provided hope and reassurance of better days to come. While northern religions largely ignore the Winter Solstice as having any connection to their winter traditions, there is no doubt that it is the origin of all religious rituals during this time of year.