Great Britain

Winter solstice traditions, meaning and rituals for the shortest day of the year

THIS Sunday will be the longest night of the year with the Winter Solstice sun setting at 3.53pm.

But how is this day marked, and what is the meaning behind it? Let’s take a closer look…

What is the Winter Solstice?

The shortest day of 2019 falls on December 22.

It is known as the winter solstice, marking the day of the year with the fewest sunlight hours.

The solstice always falls between December 19 and 22.

Most years, it falls on the 21st in the UK, but sometimes it lands a little bit off-kilter, because it takes the Earth 365 and a quarter days to go around the sun.

This extra quarter day is why we add a day to the calendar every four years with a leap year - to stop the dates drifting gradually through the seasons.

It is worth noting that December 22 is the Winter Solstice in the northern hemisphere – those south of the equator will be marking the Summer Solstice tonight.

What is the meaning behind the Winter Solstice?

The word “solstice” comes from the Latin solstitium meaning “sun stands still”.

It refers to the point when the apparent movement of the sun’s path seems to stop briefly.

The event is one of the oldest winter celebrations, and it is still marked by a number of different cultures around the world.

Why is Winter Solstice so important?

Winter solstice is an important time for cultures across the globe.

Under the old Julian calendar, the winter solstice occurred on December 25.

With the introduction of the Gregorian calendar the solstice slipped to the 21st, but the Christian celebration of Jesus’s birth continued to be held on 25 December.

The day is primarily observed by Pagans and Druids who descend on Stonehenge to mark the occasion.

Stonehenge is a prehistoric monument located in Wiltshire, which is carefully aligned on a sight-line that points to the winter solstice sunset.

Archaeologists believe it was constructed from 3000 BC to 2000 BC and it is thought that the winter solstice was actually more important to the people who constructed Stonehenge than the Summer solstice.

The winter solstice was historically a time when cattle was slaughtered (so the animals would not have to be fed during the winter) and the majority of wine and beer was finally fermented.

The only other megalithic monuments in the British Isles which clearly align with the sun are Newgrange in County Meath, Ireland and Maeshowe situated on Mainland, Orkney, Scotland.

Both monuments famously face the winter solstice sunrise.

How is the Winter Solstice celebrated in the UK?

While many associate December 21 with the solstice, in the pagan and druid communities the celebration comes the following day.

These communities will dress in traditional costumes and mark the first sunrise after the astronomical event.

What are some other Winter Solstice celebrations like?

Celebrations of the lighter days to come have been common throughout history with feasts, festivals and holidays around the December solstice celebrated by cultures across the globe.


The winter solstice festival Saturnalia began on December 17 and lasted for seven days in In Ancient Rome.

These Saturnalian banquets were held from as far back as around 217 BCE to honor Saturn, the father of the gods.

The holiday was celebrated with a sacrifice at the Temple of Saturn, in the Roman Forum, and a public banquet, followed by private gift-giving, continual partying, and a carnival atmosphere that overturned Roman social norms.

The festival was characterised as a free-for-all when all discipline and orderly behaviour was ignored.

Wars were interrupted or postponed, gambling was permitted, slaves were served by their masters and all grudges and quarrels were forgotten.

It was traditional to offer gifts of imitation fruit (a symbol of fertility), dolls (symbolic of the custom of human sacrifice), and candles (reminiscent of the bonfires traditionally associated with pagan solstice celebrations).

The Saturnalia would degenerate into a week-long orgy of debauchery and crime – giving rise to the modern use of the term 'saturnalia', meaning a period of unrestrained license and revelry.

Saturnalia would degenerate into a week-long orgy of debauchery and crime and gave rise to the modern use of the term 'saturnalia', which means a period of unrestrained license and revelry.

Feast of Juul:

The Feast of Juul (where we get the term 'Yule' from at this time of year) was a pre-Christian (Pagan) festival observed in Scandinavia at the time of the December solstice.

People would light fires to symbolise the heat and light of the returning sun and a Juul (or Yule) log was brought in and dropped in the hearth as a tribute the Norse god Thor.

The Yule Log was often an entire tree that was carefully chosen and brought into the house with great ceremony.

The largest end of the log would be placed into the fire hearth, while the rest of the tree stuck out into the room.

The log was burned until nothing but ash remained, and this was collected and either strewn on the fields as fertiliser every night until Twelfth Night or kept as a charm and or as medicine.

A piece of the log was kept as both a token of good luck and as kindling for the following year’s log.


Yalda or Shab-e Chelleh ('night of forty') is an Iranian festival celebrated on the "longest and darkest night of the year”.

Every year, on December 21, Iranians celebrate the arrival of winter, the renewal of the sun and the victory of light over darkness.

Pomegranate, watermelon and dried nuts are served as a tradition and classic poetry and old mythologies are read in a family gathering, led by an elder member of the household.

It is believed that eating watermelons on the night of Chelleh will ensure the health and well-being of the individual during the months of summer by protecting him from falling victim to excessive heat or disease.

Santo Tomas in Guatemala:

December 21 is observed as St Thomas's Day in the Christian calendar.

In Guatemala, this day sees Mayan Indians indulge in the ritual known as the Palo Volador, or “flying pole dance”.

Three men climb on top of a 50-foot pole as one of them beats a drum and plays a flute.

The other two men wind a rope attached to the pole around one foot and jump.

If they land on their feet, it is believed that the sun god will be pleased and that the days will start getting longer.

Aerial footage of Soggy druids marking the Winter Solstice as new age revellers gather at Stonehenge