The Winter Solstice is the shortest day of the year – giving just 7 hours and 50 minutes of daylight and marks the moment the sun shines at its most southern point, directly over the Tropic of Capricorn.
The term 'solstice' derives from the Latin word 'solstitium', meaning 'Sun standing still'. On this day the Sun seems to stand still at the Tropic of Capricorn and then reverses its direction as it reaches its southernmost position as seen from the Earth.
There are many different thoughts and beliefs about the reasons why the solstices occur (there is also a “Summer Solstice” - the days will gradually get longer until the Summer solstice which occurs on Thursday 21st June, 2018 which, with an extra 8 hours and 49 minutes of sun, is the longest day). The science behind the solstices is that the earth orbits around the sun on a tilted axis. So, between September and March, Earth’s Northern Hemisphere gets less exposure to direct sunlight over the course of a day. The rest of the year, the north gets more direct sunlight and the Southern Hemisphere gets less. This is the reason for the seasons.
Many cultures and faiths across the world, including the British, observe and celebrate the date in different ways. The winter solstice festival Saturnalia was held as far back as around 217 BC to honour Saturnus, the father of the gods and the god of seed and sowing. The festival began in Ancient Rome and heavily featured large banquets, celebrating with a sacrifice at the Temple of Saturn. This was followed by gift-giving, continual excess and partying, and a carnival-like atmosphere that overturned standard Roman social norms. The holiday became known as an excessive free-for-all, when orderly behaviour and official discipline was dropped or ignored. Wars, even, were interrupted or postponed, gambling was permitted, slaves were served by their masters and all grudges and quarrels were forgotten.
Many of the traditions we now think of as being part of Christmas - including Yule logs, mistletoe and Christmas trees - have their roots in the pagan celebrations of winter solstice. It was traditional to offer gifts of imitation fruit (a symbol of fertility), dolls (symbolic of the custom of human sacrifice), and candles (reminiscent of the bonfires traditionally associated with pagan solstice celebrations).