It's the Winter Solstice this weekend and the days have been gradually getting darker. The shortest day of the year, normally December 21st, is still a magical time for many people in the northern hemisphere. This time of year partly forms the background for my full length historical novel, Midwinter Masquerade, which is set in the Scottish countryside in 1816.
The Winter Solstice is the day when the sun appears to stand still before changing direction, although it's actually the earth which tilts around the sun. The days will slowly begin to lengthen again until reaching the longest day on the Summer Solstice. The word solstice is thought to stem from two Latin words: sol, meaning sun and sistere, to stand.
The days leading up to the Winter Solstice were known as Saturnalia in Roman times, marking the moment when the sun was reborn after the shortest day and longest night. To celebrate the occasion and to welcome the coming of light, most people left aside their work to enjoy as much merriment and feasting as possible.
Another important part of the festival was the winter greenery brought inside to decorate homes around this time, such as ivy, holly, laurel and mistletoe, all illuminated by the light from candles. The evergreen ivy and the holly with its bright red berries have had many myths and legends attached to them over the centuries, often to do with new life and rebirth.
Here in Britain, there is a wealth of carols and poems celebrating the place holly and ivy have in our December traditions, both pagan and Christian, from Advent, through the twelve days of Christmas to Epiphany, such as this poem by Robert Herrick from the 16th century.
The darling of the world is come,
And fit it is we find a room
To welcome him. The nobler part
Of all the house here is the heart.
Which we will give him, and bequeath
This holly and this ivy wreath,
To do him honour who’s our King,
And Lord of all this revelling.
Many people still celebrate this special time at the Winter Solstice and it is especially sacred to the Druids and some pagan beliefs. Stonehenge in England is one of the most significant ancient spiritual sites where hundreds of people will gather to watch the sun set on the shortest day tomorrow and will welcome the new sunrise after the longest night of the year.
Do you celebrate the solstice at all?