The winter solstice is the shortest day of the annual sun cycle. Nowadays this event passes by without any thought or celebration, as with electric lighting and heating the length of day light is no longer of any importance. When it gets dark, a switch of a button will bring 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, bare witness 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 is was the time when food and 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 which had not been already cooked, fermented and changed into a form that would store, was also ready to be eaten up.
During the few hours of sunlight people did their work and once the sunset had arrived, it was time to get together and be merry. That is the reason why all pagan festivals, certainly the autumn and winter ones, always started during early evening. In most European countries a reminder of these celebrations is Christmas, which is always celebrated on the 24th December once it gets dark. One reason may be that the candles illuminating the Christmas tree are certainly more effective when it is dark than during daylight. But the main reason is that Christmas’ celebratory custom is derived from the festival of the rebirth of the sun and as a pagan festival would have certainly been celebrated during the evening.
Below is an article that explains why the coldest days lie after the winter solstice and not before it. Why the coldest days are still to come?