The winter solstice is the shortest day of the annual sun cycle and occurs on the 21st/22nd of December. Nowadays this event passes by without any thought or celebration, as with electric lighting and heating the length of daylight is no longer of any consequence. When it gets dark, with a switch of a button the lights back on! But a few thousand years ago and no light switch in sight, the winter solstice had a tremendous impact on people and their activities.
Archaeological sites such as Newgrange in Ireland and Stonehenge in the UK bares witness to how important these ever shortening or lengthening sunrises/sunsets were.
The winter solstice was a time of great celebration before the really ‘cold days’ arrived. Most of the cattle would now be slaughtered, as it was difficult to feed them through the cold winter. The side effect was that it was the time when food, especially meat, was around in plentiful amounts.
The barley, harvested earlier in the year and made into beer, was now properly fermented and the beer vessels needed emptying before they would go off. Any fruit and vegetables that had not been already cooked, fermented, and changed into a form that would store, would be part of the upcoming feasts.
During the few hours of daylight, people completed their work and once the sunset had arrived, it was time to get together and be merry. This is the reason why pagan festivals, certainly during the winter months, always started during early evening. So people could complete their work during the day and celebrate by candlelight during the evening.
Christmas, for example, is such a festival. Most European countries follow the old pagan tradition and celebrate Christmas on the Eve of the 24th December. The UK and US however, choose to switch the Christmas celebration to the next day – 25th December. In our house, we celebrate both! Seeing the Christmas tree, the sign for eternal life – lit up for the first time, is definitely more effective during the the evening! Christmas, the reigniting of the ‘little light’ is of course modeled on the festival of the rebirth of the sun. This was one of the main pagan festivals in the old calendar and would have certainly been celebrated during the evening.