December 21 2009 is Winter solstice. Today is the longest night of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. Today even the sun stands momentarily still in the sky!
The word solstice literally means "sun standing still". At the moment of the winter solstice the path of the sun in the sky over the last six months has reached it's furthest southern position and now turns northwards! At noon today the sun will stand directly overhead at latitude 23.5 South, Tropic of Capricorn. In the southern hemisphere it will be longest day of the year, but for us in the Northern hemisphere the day will be the shortest. But on the bright side, the day after the winter solstice marks the beginning of lengthening days leading up to summer solstice!
Since ancient times people have celebrated winter solstice with religious and cultural traditions. The Winter Solstice was important to our ancestors as a marker for the beginning of a new solar year and that spring was going to come again. When Christian priests started to work their way across Europe, spreading the word of their new religion, they found everywhere firmly entrenched celebrations of the solstices and equinoxes. They were smart enough to realize that these festivals, which they saw, often wrongly as being pagan, were too well established and popular to dislodge, so they simply rededicated them to celebrations of the most important Christian events. The Winter Solstice became Christmas, and we now know the Spring Equinox as Easter. The original connection is evident in the name Easter, which comes from Aeostre, the name of a goddess of spring. The differences between the dates of the solstices and equinoxes compared with those of the modern celebrations come from various adjustments in the calendar.
Massive prehistoric monuments such as Ireland's New Grange tomb are aligned to to capture the light at the moment of the winter solstice sunrise. It is perhaps the most famous of the 250 passage tombs in Ireland. It covers an area of one acre, and has an internal passage that is almost 60 feet (19 m) long. The tomb has been dated at about 3,200 BCE; it is one of the oldest structures in the world. At Maeshowe, (Orkneys, Scotland) there is a chambered cairn built on a leveled area with a surrounding bank and ditch. It has been carbon dated at 2750 BCE. Inside the cairn is a stone structure with a long entry tunnel. The structure is aligned so that sunlight can shine along the entry passage into the interior of the megalith, and illuminate the back of the structure. This happens at sunrise at and near the winter solstice.
Germanic peoples of Northern Europe honored the winter solstice with Yule festivities. In the fourth century, before the Romans became Christian, they were Pagans who, on Dec. 25 during the winter solstice, celebrated the Feast of the Unconquered Suns, or Sol Envictus, to honour the sun's return and the days becoming longer.The Romans also celebrated Saturnalia, a week long feast included the winter solstice. It was called "Alban Arthuan" by the ancient Druids. It is the end of month of the Elder Tree and the start of the month of the Birch. The three days before Yule is a magical time. This is the time of the Serpent Days or transformation...The Elder and Birch stand at the entrance to Annwn or Celtic underworld where all life was formed. Like several other myths they guard the entrance to the underworld. This is the time the Sun God journey's through the underworld to learn the secrets of death and life. And bring out those souls to be reincarnated.
Neopaganism is a group of religions which are attempting re-creations of ancient Pagan religions. Of these, Wicca is the most common; it is loosely based on ancient Celtic beliefs and practices. The winter solstice sabbat is often called Yule. It is a time for introspection, and planning for the future.