On the night of winter solstice, as seen from a northern sky, the three stars in Orion's Belt align with the brightest star in the eastern sky Sirius to show where the Sun will rise in the morning after winter solstice. Until this time, the Sun has exhibited since summer solstice a decreasing arc across the Southern sky. On winter solstice, the Sun ceases to decline in the sky and the length of daylight reaches its minimum for three days, during which the sun does not move on the horizon. After such a time, the Sun begins its ascent into the northern sky and days grow longer.
This special time of the year has been celebrated the world over from time out of mind. We're not really sure which ancient culture first began to study and honor the solstices and equinoxes, as there are monuments relating to these dates in nearly every ancient culture, but it's likely to have been of marked importance since Neolithic times. For the record, "neolithic" means new stone and refers to a particular stage of human technological development starting around 10,000 BCE. This period saw what is historically referred to as the "Neolithic revolution" in which farming and metal toolmaking reached previously unknown heights of sophistication. These advances allowed for intense population growth and the development of settled communities which leads us, via the ancient Sumerians in what is now termed the Middle East, to the first examples of recorded history. So, it would stand to reason that the Sumerians were among the first to recognize the solstices and equinoxes.
The first peoples to make monuments related to the winter solstice, however, came from Europe. Or, perhaps more accurately, the oldest surviving monuments known to modern archaeology that relate to the winter solstice come from late Neolithic and Bronze Age sites like Newgrange in Ireland and hundreds of henges and other monuments in Britain. Newgrange is one of my personal favorite ancient places, far closer to my heart than Stonehenge and several centuries older than said henge. It is older than even the great pyramids of Egypt at about 5,000 years of age. The huge monument was built to receive a ray of light into a deep chamber on the morning of the winter solstice that fell on beautiful spirals, solar discs and other symbols. At no other time of the year was this space illuminated which gives us a good indication of the significance of the winter solstice to those who built this ancient site. After all, the Neolithics were the first to perfect farming; the timing of the seasons was crucial to their very survival.
But, as stated above, the ancient Europeans weren't the only Neolithics to honor the solstices and equinoxes in stone. Sacred sites relating to the winter solstice alone have been found all over, including the Americas, Asia, Indonesia and the Middle East. Most notable, in my opinion, are the Chaco Canyon sites in New Mexico built by ancestors of the Pueblos and the Hopi and the Great Zimbabwe, AKA "African Stonehenge", site. These ancient sacred sites, and many others the world over, have fairly precise alignments involving the winter solstice. It gives me shivers to think of the ancient sites not yet discovered!
As the winter solstice sees the return of the sun after the longest night of the year it naturally lead to the incorporation of the worship of sun gods and no holyday holds more sway over us today than that of the ancient Greco-Roman period. The ancient Greeks celebrated the Chronia, in honor of Chronus, around the time of the winter solstice. Eventually, as is typical of the ancient Romans, the holyday was Romanized and became Saturnalia, and Chronus became Saturn, a deity of--you guessed it--agriculture and the harvest. The festivities were marked by the usual sacrifices, the exchanging of gifts, legal gambling-even by slaves, and a symbolic reversal of the roles of slaves and their owners (meaning the slaves were still doing all the work but things were a little more laid back than usual) and general partying all around. Originally the holyday was only celebrated for a single day, 17 December, but gradually grew in length due to its immense popularity. It was such an important and popular festival that, despite the efforts of more than one Caesar to shorten it, the celebrations eventually spread to encompass an entire week.
Saturnalia is tied up with such an important decision that a little Christian history is warranted to explain it. To understand this you must know that Saturnalia was eventually superseded by the festival of Sol Invictus, the Roman sun god imported from Syria, which borrowed many of the characteristics of the previously celebrated holyday. During the reign of Julius Caesar a great number of calendar reforms were instituted, one of which firmly placed the winter solstice, the celebration of the return of Sol, on 25 December. Later in the 4th century CE the Emperor Constantine, who considered Sol to be the same deity as Jesus, perhaps quite naturally decided upon 25 December as the birth of the savior of his new religion. So what was once Saturnalia became the festival of Sol Invictus and then became the celebration of the birth of the new sun god, the Christ child. So it would seem that some of the old Saturnalia traditions would quite naturally have survived in the more recent celebrations of Christmas, namely the gift giving and the general emphasis on food and drink.
And so, to honor his return and ask his favor I say a short prayer to Sol.
In these dark days of winter, and dark economic times of social unrest, may the light of the returning sun bless us all. Whether we honor Chronus, Saturn, Sol, Jesus or no god at all but simply welcome the return of warmth may we all be filled with the joyous potential of the season. As the calendar year turns and a new president takes the helm of my country may we all benefit from the better times to come.
Edited on 21 December: It has occurred to me that, given all the dates and facts being thrown around in the above, it might be good if I listed some sources. Duh! You'd think I'd never written an essay before. So, here are some of the sites I consulted for this post:
Wikipedia entry for Sol Invictus
Wikipedia entry for Constantine the Great
Wikipedia entry for Saturnalia
Wikipedia entry for Winter Solstice
Solstice at Candle Grove.com
December at Religio Romana
I also consulted "The Golden Bough" and a couple of other books that I'm too lazy to run upstairs to fetch. I've also read a lot about this subject over the years so I just consulted my memory and my pineal gland.