University of Vermont Extension
Winter (holiday) News
Department of Plant and Soil Science
OF THE WINTER SOLSTICE
Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont
winter solstice, which occurs on or around Dec. 21, is the first day of winter.
It's also the shortest day and the longest night of the year. While most of us
barely acknowledge its passing, to earlier cultures this was a day of both
trepidation and celebration.
early Romans, Egyptians, Celtics and their priests called Druids, and others
observed that by December the fields were no longer producing crops, leaves had
fallen off the trees, and many plants had died. Daylight hours were waning, and
the sun was getting lower and lower in the sky. They feared the sun would
completely disappear, leaving them without light and warmth.
lit bonfires to light up the skies on this longest of nights both for warmth
and to coax the sun to return. They thought the fire would call out to the sun,
asking it to stop its descent into the earth and return to the sky.
sun, considered a supreme being, was often considered ill, only to recover with
the longer days after the solstice. Some experts believe the word “Yule”,
another term for Christmas, came from the similar Gothic and Saxon words
meaning wheel. This would have referred
to the cycles of the sun.
was usually used for these bonfires because, being a "strong," solid
wood, it was perceived to represent strength and triumph. The Saxons and
Celtics often kept an oak log--usually the entire trunk of a tree--burning for
12 hours on the eve of the solstice. If the fire did not
go out during this
period, the household would be protected and see an abundance of crops, good
health, and other desirable things in the coming year.
piece of the log was saved to start the fire the following year with the belief
that "as the old log is consumed, so is the old year" with all its
troubles. Many European cultures, especially the British, adopted this
tradition, calling it the Yule log.
species of trees also played a significant role in solstice celebrations. The
Romans, Celtics, Teutons, and Christians, for example, all considered the
evergreen to be an important symbol of the continuity of life, protection, and
future prosperity as it was one of the only trees to stay green during the
bleak, "lifeless" winter months. Fir, cedar, and pine boughs and
wreaths were used to decorate homes.
gifts for the gods representing the sun, earth, and harvest also were hung from
the branches of pine trees in groves. Some people believe this custom evolved
into the Christian tradition of decorating an evergreen tree in December.
sacred trees of the solstice were the yew (symbolizing death and the last day
of the solar year), silver fir (winter solstice day and rebirth), and birch
(new beginnings). The Celtics believed
plants brought indoors during the solstice would assure woodland spirits safe
refuge there during the winter months.
They used yellow cedar (arborvitae) to symbolize cleansing and purity,
ash to symbolize the sun (considered a supreme being) and protection, and the
pine for peace, healing, and joy.
plants, including holly, ivy, and mistletoe, were believed to bring protection
and luck, and thus, were hung over doors to keep out misfortune. Ivy, which
for fidelity, healing,
and marriage, was worn as a crown or fashioned into wreaths and
garlands for decorations
during the winter months.
with its links to agriculture in many cultures, also has significance to the
solstice. In addition to being baked into bread, cookies, and cakes for
solstice feasts, it was woven into wreaths and straw figures to encourage
sustenance, fertility, and an abundant harvest.
Return to Perry's Perennial