England’s Stonehenge, built by hand some five thousand years ago, was designed to capture the sunrise on the morning of the Winter Solstice.

Those who study the history of Christmas, which includes historians, archeologists, anthropologists, and folklorists, agree that the genesis of the modern holiday was celebrations of the Winter Solstice that occurred centuries, or millennia, before the birth of Christ.   The Roman Saturnalia, the Germanic Yule, and the Slavic Korochun were geographically and culturally diverse but they had remarkable similarities that can be traced to the original reason for the season.  While there are few records of events that occurred thousands of years ago, there is much we can infer about how the celebrations developed from what we know about the physical world early man inhabited.  

Today, we understand the change of seasons is both normal and necessary for the natural environment around us.  We know that the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year, is both the beginning and the end of a cycle in which the amount of sunlight increases every day until the Summer Solstice, and decreases every day until the Winter Solstice.  We also have modern conveniences with which we can light the darkness and heat the cold, and we no longer need to give any special thought to stocking up on food for the winter. Despite these advantages, the depth of winter is still associated with conditions like depression and seasonal affective disorder that reveal the importance of sunlight to our psyches.  For people living in the northernmost regions of our planet, where the Winter Solstice is not merely a short day but the middle of a month-long night, life is even more challenging.

Now, consider the circumstances facing early humans.  Without any understanding of the astronomical explanations underlying the change of seasons, and no assurance the sun would return, the period preceding the Winter Solstice was fraught with terror. The sun appeared to be slowly disappearing, temperatures plunged, snow fell, most plant life died, or appeared to do so, wild animals became scarce, and there was not enough feed to keep domesticated animals alive over the winter. These conditions threatened man’s very existence unless he was somehow able to establish adequate shelter and a sufficient store of food to carry him through to spring.  Early man also had to deal with what he believed to be a multitude of unseen gods, goblins, gnomes, elves, and assorted evil spirits.  Anyone who has spent a night in the total darkness of wilderness understands that silence magnifies sound and that every howl of a predator, shriek of the wind, or crack of a branch brings fears of unseen evil things.

While early humans could roughly determine the date of the Winter Solstice by monitoring the length of the shadow cast by a stick in the ground, ancient ruins show that early man was exceptionally focused on the ability to predict precisely the date of the Winter Solstice because the arrival of the Winter Solstice was a life or death matter.  Prior to Rome’s adoption of Christianity in the fourth century, the solstice determined the life or death of the sun god, a figure who was born on the Winter Solstice, died on the Winter Solstice, and returned to life each year on the Winter Solstice.   Most historians, archeologists, anthropologists, and folklorists believe there were prehistoric celebrations of the Winter Solstice, led by tribal priests, thousands of years before the well-documented midwinter celebrations in Rome.  There are few written descriptions prior to the Roman Saturnalia but the celebrants left behind archeological artifacts, such as the ruins of Stonehenge, which are impossible to miss. Given the massive size of the stones assembled at Stonehenge, the distance they were moved to create the structure, and the precision with which they were aligned by primitive tools, the importance of midwinter to these societies cannot be doubted.

Terrifying though it was, midwinter had some positive attributes as well.  In an effort to woo back the sun as it seemed to disappear, early man used bonfires, candles, and evergreens to capture the attention of the sun god, creating the design scheme that still dominates holiday decor.  The fall harvest had been completed, producing a supply of food for the winter and the grains, grapes, and honey necessary to brew ale, wine, and mead.  This was also the only time of the year that fresh meat was plentiful because the cattle that could not be maintained during the winter were slaughtered, creating the provender for midwinter feasts.  The combination of cold and darkness made it virtually impossible to work for a month or more, allowing the populace to fill the time with feasting, drinking, and celebration of the sun god, practices that occurred throughout Europe without regard to cultural and language differences.    

Moreover, the midwinter festivals were not simply drunken parties but festivals with a spiritual purpose.  Much of our understanding of the early midwinter celebrations comes from British folklore expert Clement A. Miles, who in 1912 published a groundbreaking study, Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, Christian and Pagan, describing the psychological importance of celebrations like the Winter Solstice.  “It has been an instinct in nearly all peoples, savage or civilized,” he wrote, “to set aside certain days for special ceremonial observances, attended by outward rejoicing. This tendency . . . answers to man’s need to lift himself above the commonplace and the everyday, to, escape from the leaden weight of monotony that oppresses him . . . .  It is difficult to be religious, impossible to be merry, at every moment of life, and festivals are as sunlit peaks, testifying, above dark valleys, to the eternal radiance.”

This explanation, however, does not capture how truly universal the celebration of the Winter Solstice really is. In his 1884 history, Christmastide: Its History, Festivities and Carols, historian William Sandys tells us that the Winter Solstice celebrations occurred not only in Europe, where the Roman Saturnalia, the Germanic Yule, the Scandinavian Jul, and the Slavic Korochun left large footprints on our modern Christmas celebrations, but in the Americas, the Mediterranean, Africa, and Asia.  The global nature of these celebrations confirms that the European midwinter celebrations are a universal festival of humankind and not the province of any particular nation or religion.

Tom A. Jerman