This is an important time of the year for everyone, not just for Christians.
Neolithic man recognised the winter solstice, the time when the sun stands still. It was a desperate time, cold, dark with food stores running low.
The sun hovers close to the southern horizon at dawn and appears to cease its daily regression towards the shorter days. Ancient man watched anxiously, hoping the sun would once more begin its dawn movement towards the east. Then the days would become longer and warm again.
The shortest day
Today, December 21st, we have 7 hours 54 minutes between sunrise and sunset in Winchester but only 6 hours 24 minutes if you live in Stornoway. The day length of 7 hours 54 minutes lasts for a week, the days getting longer by only a few seconds. On Boxing Day the day length is 7 hours 55 minutes.
The journey of the earth around the sun is quite complicated but changes so slowly that we do not need to worry about it.
In pre-Christian times the turn of the year was a festival and an economic stock taking. Was there enough food for the people and the animals to last until the first new growths of spring? Probably not. So some animals were killed, ceremoniously as a form of sacrifice, and eaten. The ceremony or sacrifice was to Odin or Wotan, the furious one, god of war, victory, wisdom and poetry. He was the father of Thor. The festival was called Yule and associated with logs for burning and cooking meat, usually pork.
The start of Christmas
The birthday of Christ is not known but was probably about 4 BC and in the ‘winter’ months as shepherds grazed their flocks near Bethlehem at that season. Eastern Orthodox Christians will celebrate Christmas on January 7th this year as they use the old Julian calendar.
It may have been King Haakon I (920-961) of Norway who arranged for Christianity to be preached at the winter solstice – the Yule festival as it was called in Northern Europe. Part of the custom was to bring something green into your house, like Holly, Ivy or Mistletoe.
Happy Christmas, Good Yule. The sun is already returning.