Today is the winter solstice — the shortest day and longest night of the year in the northern hemisphere. The Sun stands farthest south for the entire year, too, so it scoots low across the horizon.
For centuries, people in regions as far flung as China, Persia, and the Americas celebrated this astronomical event. It marked a turning point in the year — offering a future of longer, warmer days.
In ancient Rome, the solstice was celebrated with the most popular holiday of the year, Saturnalia. It honored Saturn, a god of agriculture. It grew out of older rituals that were tied to the winter planting season. Romans from all walks of life enjoyed a week-long festival. It featured music, feasting, gift giving, and decorating with greenery.
Early Christians celebrated the feast of Saint Lucy, who’s remembered for helping persecuted Christians who were in hiding. In legend, she wore a wreath of candles on her head to light the way while leaving her hands free.
If much of this sounds familiar, there’s good reason. Many of these ancient traditions live on in the modern celebration of Christmas — no longer linked to harvesting and planting, but still bringing light and festivity into the darkest season of the year.
And Julius Caesar added to the celebration when he reformed the calendar, in 46 BC. He placed the beginning of the year shortly after the solstice — on the first of January — where it remains today.
Script by Laura Tuma