Today is the Winter Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere. Solstice derives from the Latin solistium
, sol- (“sun”) + stitium (“standing still”). It is the day when the “sun stands still in the sky.” This happens twice a year: during the summer, for the longest day of the year, and in winter, for the shortest day of the year. Note that in the Southern Hemisphere, the solstices are reversed: what is traditionally Summer Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere is the Winter Solstice of the Southern Hemisphere and vice-versa.
Many cultures around the world have chosen this astronomically-observable event as a season or day of commemoration throughout history. It is usually associated with the sun, or, more broadly, with the hope of light by means of bonfires, yule logs, or candles.
For the Romans, December 25th in the old Julian Calendar was both the Winter Solstice, and the commemoration of the birth of Sol Invictus, the “Invincible Sun” god: Natalis Invicti.
In Persia, going back to the Zoroastrian traditions, with its special emphasis on the dualism of light versus dark, the “longest and darkest night of the year” was commemorated as Shab-e-Yalda. It was originally intended to reflect sheltering together for protection of the light during the greatest darkness, so bright red fruits and nuts, symbolizing the dawn, are traditional treats.
In Punjabi culture, the festival of Lohri is commemorated by a bonfire. It is also associated with children going door-to-door, singing songs, and receiving presents, including sweets and money. (Sound familiar?)
In Judaisim, the Solstice coincides with the Festival of Lights: Hanukkah. You can see how the symbol of the Hanukkah menorah (or chanukkiyah) has similar associations of the rebirth or maintaining of light in the darkness as other cultures.
Did you know for equatorial cultures, the Solstice passes more or less unnoticed? This is because every day along the Equator has the same length of day and night, regardless of the time of year.