Winter Solstice – a Precursor to Christmas

A natural Christmas/Yule tree, after heavy snows on Christmas Day a year ago.

At 3:23 p.m. on Friday, we have an event worth celebrating. No, it’s not likely that the president will be resigning, or I’ve won the lottery. Actually, the event won’t be noticeable, but at that precise time we will reach the Winter Solstice, that moment in Earth’s rotation around the sun when the northern hemisphere is tilted farthest away from the sun, making Friday the shortest day of the year, in term of daylight hours.

That means of course that it’s also when the southern hemisphere is tilted toward the sun, and our friends in Australia and other countries south of the Equator will have their longest day of the year.

By some people’s definition, Friday is the beginning of winter, though in reality, in northern latitudes, such as Montana, it’s more realistic to think in terms of winter starting in November. In many cultures, the day of the Winter Solstice is considered midwinter.

Here in Butte, on Friday we’ll have 8 hours, 38 minutes and 26 seconds of daylight. It’s hardly worth celebrating, but on Saturday we’ll have approximately one more second of daylight, according to www.timeanddate.com. What will be noticeable in a few days is a later sunset, though sunrises will also be a bit later each day for the rest of the month. Still, by New Year’s Eve day, we will have gained about four minutes of daylight. I’m grateful to my father for immigrating to America. In the countryside around Trondheim, Norway, where he grew up, there are just four hours and 30 minutes of daylight on the Solstice.

The Winter Solstice is a special day in many cultures, as the dark, cold months of winter are often associated with hardship and starvation, and the gradual lengthening of days is a promise that spring will be coming in a few months. The rocks at Stonehenge in England are lined up for sunrise on the Solstice.

Of course at the same time, according to Wikipedia, the Solstice is a time for feasting, as livestock would be slaughtered around this time, to avoid having to feed them through the winter. Wine and beer made during the year would also be fully fermented and ready for drinking.

Northern European people celebrated the Solstice with a 12-day midwinter holiday season called Yule and similar terms. Many Christian traditions, such as Christmas trees and wreaths, or the Yule log, have their start in those pagan cultures. Even the beer brewing continues as part of Scandinavian Christian customs with the making of the Yule ale, just as many craft beer brewers come up with a winter or Christmas seasonal beer.

In this coming week we also celebrate Christmas, and I’ll note that December 25 was also the date that the Roman Empire celebrated Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun. The days leading up to the celebration, Saturnalia, were also a time for feasting and drinking.

In researching this article I learned that some Christian churches also commemorate the Solstice as Blue Christmas. It’s the feast day for St. Thomas the Apostle, linking “Doubting Thomas” and his struggle to understand the story of the resurrection with our seeming struggle with darkness.

I grew up in a heavily Scandinavian area, or “Lutefisk Ghetto,” in southern Minnesota, with rafts of uncles, aunts, cousins and other extended family within relatively close distances, and while they likely didn’t consider themselves pagans, they certainly observed the 12 days of Yule, and the days between Christmas and New Year were a time for having a houseful of company for dinner, or going to someone else’s house for dinner.

Scientists tell us that some of our strongest memories are associated with our olfactory senses, and just thinking of the Yule season, I occasionally take a quick mental trip back to years past, entering farm houses redolent of aromas of manure-splattered overalls and boots by back doors, combining with the scent of lutefisk, rutabaga, and roast beef in the kitchen—a heady combination.

It’s the smell of Christmas, and so I wish our readers a Merry Christmas.

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