The December solstice is observed as the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere and is considered the summer solstice in the southern hemisphere. At this time, the sun reaches its highest point of declination to the south at -23.5 degrees, meaning that the North Pole experiences this much tilt away from the sun. It occurs between December 20 and December 23rd.
Many places in north of the Arctic Polar Circle will be completely dark and those below the Antarctic Polar Circle will be completely light for this day. For those south of the equator, the day will have the most sunlight hours. Those north of the equator will see the shortest amount of sunlight hours.
Most winter solstice celebrations have been absorbed into the festivals of Christian or other modern religions.
The winter solstice has influenced culture since humanity’s beginnings, as many used the movements of the sun to understand the world around them and develop calendar systems. Celebrations were often held to celebrate the fact that winter days received more sunlight after the December solstice.
Pre-Christian pagan festivals often celebrated the cycle of life and this increased light. The Roman festival of Saturnalia honored the father of the gods, Saturn, which lasted a week. It was marked by the theme of reversal, where fights were often forgotten, wars postponed, and cultural hierarchies were interrupted with practices such as masters serving servants. The Romans held masquerades, gave gifts of fruit, candles, or dolls, and often selected a mock king from a lower level of society to behave however he wanted until the festival’s end. He would then be killed at the festival’s close. The celebration was eventually associated with unrestrained crime and revelry, containing many origins of England’s Twelfth Night celebrations.
Yule was a twelve day pagan festival observed by Northern Europeans that was mostly absorbed into Christmas celebrations. The celebration’s theme was the cycle of life given by the sun and observers lit fire to symbolize this. The Yule log was burned to honor Thor, a Scandinavian god. Many observers burned the log until it was ash or until only a little piece was left, which was kept for good luck. These ashes or pieces were used as fertilizer or medicine as well. French peasants often kept these ashes under their bed to protect against thunder. In Poland, the solstice was observed with themes of forgiveness and selflessness, often marked with sharing food or giving to the needy.
Some neo-pagan festivals are still observed today along with other cultural celebrations. On the celebration of St. Thomas’s Day on December 21st, those of Mayan Indian descent will honor their pre-Christian gods. In Peru, Quecia Indians have revived their religious solstice festival that had been banned by 16th century Roman Catholic converters.