If you want to be picky about it, we're two days past the solstice, which was on December 21 this year, but I will just go ahead and talk about the Winter Solstice anyhow.
So. What is this Solstice I speak of?
Your ordinary woman in the Seventeenth or Eighteenth Centuries and in all the days right back to when women woke up and stretched and strolled out of the cave in Laxcaux, France, might watch the sunrise every morning.
Authorial intrusion here to say that I wake up every morning at sunrise because that is when the dog and cat wake up and they want my company. They are worried if I don't get up.
They are determined.
But, anyhow, let's say our historical woman is shuffling through the farm yard to empty the chamberpots or feed the chickens. She notices the sun does not just get out of bed any old where along the horizon. When she stands on the doorstep in July, the sun is rising from that pointy pine over there.
Every morning the sun gets out of bed a little to the left of where it got up the morning before.
Not enough so's you'd notice it from one day to the next.
But enough so's you notice it over weeks and months.
In December when she drags herself out of bed and stands shivering at the door, there's the sun waking up all the way over next to the church spire.
That extreme, leftmost sunrise she sees, on December 21 or 22, is the Winter Solstice. From then on, day by day, the sunrise heads back in the other direction. Our New Year is tied to that astronomical event, being a little inexact about it.
But did our pre-tech ancestors know about the Solstice?
And why would they care?
We are not talking quantum mechanics here. Our actually-very-bright ancestors were well aware that the change in where the sun rose was related to length of day. The shortest day of the year is . . . ta dah! . . . the Winter Solstice. In London, that means about eight hours of daylight. Six months later, the Summer Solstice, June 21, is the longest day, with over sixteen hours of sun.
Well, folks noticed.
They lined up Stonehenge with the solstices because they noticed.
The long and the short of it is, folks used these astronomical events in practical ways — the Winter Solstice was a good time to slaughter beasts you couldn't afford to keep for the whole winter. And they celebrated.
The Solstice meant a long, cold, hungry time was still ahead, but from that date, every day was going to be a little longer. The sun had begun its journey back toward summer.
In Northern Europe, on Santa Lucia's Day, young girls are crowned with lighted candles. The old Iranian festival of Yalda celebrates the birth of Mithra, the God of Light and Truth, associated with the sun. One custom calls for eating red-colored fruit, perhaps to bring to mind the red of the sunrise.
Yule, the big Midwinter celebration of Germanic peoples, involved feasting, blood sacrifice, getting as drunk as possible, and lighting bonfires. Four hundred years ago the 'Yule log' was dragged in — a huge log, by preference — by the men of the house, who were rewarded with free beer for this service. It's said households competed to see who had the largest log.
Really, some things never change.
If you make or buy a Bûche de Noël dessert, that's a modern interpretation of the Yule Log. Much easier to drag one of those into the house or whip it up in the kitchen than to bring in a Yule log.
In the spirit of author intrusion, I will say that I used to make these every year.
So, since we're celebrating the Season and enjoying the lights that remind us of the Solstice and the upbeat message it brings …
What kind of Holiday lights and candles do you have out now or are just packing carefully away?
Something beloved and traditional?
Or do you like to experiment every year?