Stories from the Barn

A hive of activity in the Hampshire downlands

Winter Solstice


The Winter Solstice and the return of the sun.

Advent Day 21
The Winter Solstice was such a significant moment for our ancestors and no wonder. Imagine living in a time when the Winter earth is frozen and there are no crops in the ground. The trees and hedgerows are bare of fruit and nuts and nothing grows. The days are short and battered by icy winds and snow, the nights long and cold. For our ancestors in the Northern hemisphere, survival was hard.

The Winter Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere occurs when the Earth’s North pole is pointing away from the sun. The day of the Solstice marks the point at which the sun is at its lowest in the sky. The sun almost seems to hover on the horizon and our ancestors recognized and marked this day as one of huge significance and who could blame them.

Winter Solstice

Creeping towards the shortest day.

In all of time the Sun has been the most important and prominent object in myths and legends. People could see the rhythm of light and dark, hot and cold. They could see that the position of the Sun determined the presence or absence of life giving resources. Ancient people took careful note of the passage of the Sun. Without knowledge of the working of the cosmos of course the Sun seemed to be at the centre of all life and of course as far as life on Earth goes, it is.

The Solstice festivals.

In all the observations made of the passage of the Sun there were two points when the Sun seemed to stop and hold it’s position. This happens because the apparent movement of the Sun north or south stops before changing direction.  The world ‘solstice’ comes from the Latin solstitium meaning ‘Sun stands still’.

So the Sun became a god and in every corner of the world, observances to the Sun god can be found. The Sun became a symbol for the light and the dark, the good and the evil. These days became important festival days the world over.

Winter in the Northern Hemishere

Christmas and the Winter Solstice.

When using the old Julian Calendar, the winter solstice occurred on 25 December. With the introduction of the Gregorian calendar the date of the Solstice shifted to the 21st December but the Christian celebration of Jesus’s birth continued to be held on 25 December.  Many rituals and festivals around the world can be related to the Winter Solstice. The Christmas traditions of bringing in evergreen boughs was part of the Winter festival. In Scandinavia fires were lit and a Yule log gathered and burnt in a hearth in tribute to the Sun and the Norse god Thor. Here in the UK we celebrate with a Yule log cake.

It was a time for celebration, animals were slaughtered so that they would not have to be fed over the Winter. Wines and ales had undergone their final fermentation and so were ready to drink. Food, drink and warming fires and the knowledge the Sun was returning was certainly something to celebrate.

Stonehenge and the Winter Solstice

The heel stone at Stonehenge.

Stonehenge and the Winter Solstice.

It’s hard to describe the immense respect Stonehenge engenders. The ancient engineers that built this astronomical calendar created something immensely precise from observation alone. Truly humbling. The English Heritage site describes how the stones mark the Sun’s movement. This year 2020, no visitors are allowed to witness the Solstice events but they will be live streamed.