December 20, 2023 — Ben Lewis

Mix things up this holiday season with a winter solstice celebration! On December 21st or 22nd, the winter solstice marks the shortest day of the year in the northern hemisphere. Many cultures around the world still celebrate the winter solstice in different ways. Ancient civilizations handed down their traditions, allowing us to integrate them into our own practices. Discover how your family can have a happy winter solstice celebration below!

What is Winter Solstice?

Wooden calendar shows December 21

Winter solstice, also known as the hibernal solstice, occurs when the sun is farthest south in the Northern Hemisphere. Because of the position of the earth, the sun takes the shortest distance across the sky on the winter solstice day. This phenomenon shortens the daylight hours and prolongs the night.

Although it may seem gloomy, the winter solstice marks the end of the dark winter, and people celebrate it for that reason. As an indication that the earth's poles have reached their maximum, the sun will come back and the days will grow longer with each passing day.

Who Celebrated Winter Solstice?

Different peoples and cultures celebrate the winter solstice since ancient times. The mythology and rituals connected to this event draw on a similar pattern of rebirth and the light conquering the dark night.

Many winter solstice traditions exist thanks to the Druids, Romans, and Germanic and Scandinavian tribes. Although not as cold and dark as the north, people in warmer climates close to the equator also celebrated the sun's returning light. For example, the Incas, Chinese, and Persians also have similar observations.

Summer Solstice

The summer solstice takes place when the sun travels through its northernmost point in the sky. This phenomenon usually occurs on June 20, 21, or 22.

You could say that the summer solstice is the opposite of the winter solstice, when the sun touches its southernmost point in the sky on December 21 or 22. The summer solstice is the longest day and shortest night of the year.

What Winter Solstice Traditions Have Christmas Inherited?

Winter solstice lights in a forest

Find out which Christmas traditions borrowed practices from pagan rituals of ancient times. To have a happy winter solstice, cultures of the northern hemisphere decorated a Yule tree, exchanged gifts, and lit candles. This winter, you can throw a Yule log on the fire to stay warm through the longest night of the year. Or, you can try any of these other winter solstice traditions.

Decorating the Yule Tree

One of the highlights of the holiday traditions involves decorating the Christmas tree. This tradition goes back to ancient pagan rituals. During Saturnalia, the Romans decorated trees outside their homes with small metal ornaments. Each metal ornament on the Yule tree represented a god or a patron saint of the family.

The Druids believed that the Mother Goddess gifted trees to human beings so they would know the different seasons of the year. Druids decorated oak trees with mistletoe and candles to honor winter.

The Anglo-Saxons also hung fruit and candles on Yule trees to pay tribute to Odin. The candles symbolized the sun and moon. Small carvings of gods and food were also placed on the trees to lure tree spirits into bringing the Spring with them.

Evergreen Yule Wreath

A Yule wreath is made from sprigs of evergreen boughs like pine, cedar, mistletoe, holly, ivy, juniper, yew, and fir. In many pagan cultures, evergreens symbolized prosperity and protection from evil spirits. Gifting each other an evergreen wreath or placing them by the entrance of their houses meant the pagans were inviting good fortune into their lives.

Burning the Yule Log

The tradition of the Yule log fire came from the Nordic countries, where people needed warmth and light during the longest night of the year. The men in the house brought an entire tree during the dark days of winter and burned beseeching fires all night for the entire 12 days of the winter solstice observation.

Over the centuries, people began to burn a Yule log in the fireplace instead of the outdoors. The Yule log cake is also a nod to that tradition during the winter months. Offering warmth and bringing the family together, the Yule log cheered everyone up by the fire during the darkest night of the year.

Saturnalia and Christmas

The Romans celebrated the Saturnalia festival in winter to honor their god, Saturn. Although the winters in Rome were not as harsh as in the north, Saturnalia still held a lot of importance. The social order in Rome was forgotten for a period each year as people ate, drank, and indulged themselves.

During the week leading up to the winter solstice, the Romans also observed two equally meaningful feasts. The first feast, called Juvenalia, was a tribute to the children of Rome. The second celebration involved the Roman upper class who honored Mithra, the sun god, on December 25.

Gift-Giving Winter Solstice Tradition

When the Romans celebrated Saturnalia between the 17th and 24th of December, they also exchanged gifts with one another. Unlike the Christmas gifting tradition we are familiar with today, the Romans presented only one gift to the other person.

The gifts the Romans gave each other were not elaborate items. Most of these small tokens came from nature. The idea was to give something to a friend in hopes of a prosperous harvest next year.

Amanita Muscaria and the Flying Reindeer

The idea of Santa Claus and his flying reindeer originates from a fascinating story. In the Arctic, shamans brought dried amanita muscaria to lay people. The mushroom was mixed into a traditional winter solstice drink and consumed for a magical effect.

The shamans often entered houses through caved-in holes in the roof caused by snow, which many believe was adopted into the popular story of Santa coming down the chimney.

Reindeer were considered sacred spirit animals, and shamans had special connections with them. It's not surprising how, under the influence of the magic mushrooms, people imagined the reindeer flying. The red and white Santa suit also draws from the colors of the amanita muscaria mushroom.

The Yule Altar and Candlelights

 Yuletide altar with lit candles

As part of the winter solstice tradition, a Yule altar was set up to chase away the darkness of the darkest day of the year. The lighted candles at the Yule altar symbolized the sun. People anticipated the sun's return by burning the candles as part of the winter solstice celebration.

The pagans also decorated the altar with pinecones and sprigs of cedar and fir. Then, they cleansed the offering with sacred plants like sage and sweetgrass.

Christmas Carols

Going door-to-door singing carols is synonymous with Christmas. However, this tradition goes back to the pagan era as part of the winter solstice celebrations. A ritual called wassailing involved groups of people walking around and singing through the village to chase away the darkness and evil spirits.

Coined from the Anglo-Saxon saying "waes hael," the word meant "good health." The wassailers would sing and wish those around them good health during the winter solstice. Encouraged by their merry singing, St. Francis introduced the tradition of Christmas carols to Christians in the 13th century.

Kissing Under the Mistletoe

Kissing under the mistletoe goes back to pagan traditions. The Norse, Celts, Romans, and Druids used this sacred plant in many rituals. The mistletoe embodied peace and happiness for the Druids. Warring tribes often called a truce under the mistletoe so each side kept their word. The Romans performed fertility rituals under the mistletoe to appease the god Saturn.

In Norse mythology, a mistletoe arrow kills Frigg's beloved son, Baldur. In her grief, and as part of her truce with Loki, Frigg declares the mistletoe a symbol of love, vowing to kiss anyone who walks underneath it.

Decking the Halls With Boughs of Holly

Another sacred plant connected with the god Saturn is holly. Romans gave each other wreaths made of holly as a sign of good fortune during Saturnalia. Early Christians also began to celebrate Christmas during the Saturnalia festivities.

At the time, the new religion in Rome faced persecution from the pagan believers. Christians could celebrate Christmas under the radar during Saturnalia. They often hung holly wreaths in their houses, which made it seem like they were also celebrating Saturnalia. Christians could also identify each other this way. When paganism faded into obscurity, holly became a new motif for Christmas.

Celebrate Winter Solstice in Special Ways

Whether you live in the northern or southern hemisphere, you can still celebrate the winter solstice in exciting ways. Some of our suggestions involve ancient monuments, while others will help you get in touch with the natural world. All of them will dispel negative energy and bring joy to the whole family.

Read Winter Solstice Books

There's nothing more comforting than sitting under a warm blanket when it's cold outside. Find inspiration by pouring over some winter solstice-themed books. Learn about ancient rituals and the pagan beliefs that surrounded this special occasion


Learn how different cultures celebrate the winter solstice and see the preparations they make for the new season ahead. Discover the evolution of the rituals and their modern adaptations before incorporating them into your holiday festivities.

Place Food for Wildlife on Outdoor Evergreen Trees

Following the traditions of the olden days, you can decorate an outdoor tree in addition to the indoor tree snugly placed in the living room of your house. If you live in a wooded area, adorn winter trees around your home with dried fruits and nuts for the wild animals and birds.

A fun project for children, this activity will bring you back to nature. The snacks also feed animal friends at a time when food is scarce in a snow-white world. Watch in delight as adorable squirrels, birds, and other small creatures come to feed on the edible ornaments.

Make a Wassail Drink

A Yuletide reveler makes a wassail drink

Prepare a traditional wassail drink and warm up your body and soul during the cold season. Popular spices added in a wassail drink include cinnamon sticks, nutmeg, cloves, orange zest, and ginger. Mix the spices with brown sugar, apple cider, orange juice, and raisins. The whole house will smell of delicious spices as you heat it.

Visit Stonehenge

Stonehenge was built so the structure aligns with the sun during the solstices. Every year, visitors from around the world gather at Stonehenge early in the morning in December to observe the winter solstice.

Tourists, families, and new-age England tribes like the neo-Druids, neo-Celtics, and neo-pagans often gather at Stonehenge to honor this special event. For those who can't physically travel there, you can always participate virtually, too.

What Is Your Favorite Winter Solstice Tradition? GFL

Did any of the winter solstice traditions pique your interest? Do you already practice some of them? In the comments, let us know what changes you might make to your winter holiday experience this year. And, if we forgot your favorite winter solstice rituals, mention it to our readers.


Sarah Kollar said:

Merry CHRISTmas. Mass ascension and mother ship coming soon! The great awakening grand event great solar flash. The tribulation of chist consciousness. The bride has made herself ready with her holiest of angels by her side

Leave a comment