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The Winter Solstice (on or about DEC-21):

Ancient and recent celebrations and observations,
from Druids to Native Americans. Other Winter Solstice web sites.

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This is a continuation of a previous essay

December celebrations in many faiths and locations - ancient and modern (Cont'd)


DRUIDISM: Druids and Druidesses formed the professional class in ancient Celtic society. They performed the functions of modern day priests, teachers, ambassadors, astronomers, genealogists, philosophers, musicians, theologians, scientists, poets and judges. Druids led all public rituals, which were normally held within fenced groves of sacred trees. The solstice is the time of the death of the old sun and the birth of the dark-half of the year. It was called:

"Alban Arthuan by the ancient Druids. It is the end of month of the Elder Tree and the start of the month of the Birch. The three days before Yule is a magical time. This is the time of the Serpent Days or transformation...The Elder and Birch stand at the entrance to Annwn or Celtic underworld where all life was formed. Like several other myths they guard the entrance to the underworld. This is the time the Sun God journey's thru the underworld to learn the secrets of death and life. And bring out those souls to be reincarnated." 1

A modern-day Druid, Amergin Aryson, has composed a Druidic ritual for the Winter Solstice. 2

bullet INCA RELIGION: The ancient Incas celebrated a festival if Inti Raymi at the time of the Winter Solstice. Since the Inca Empire was mainly south of the equator, the festival was held in June. It celebrates "the Festival of the Sun where the god of the Sun, Wiracocha, is honored." 3 Ceremonies were banned by the Roman Catholic conquistadors in 1572 as part of their forced conversions of the Inca people to Christianity. A local group of Quecia Indians in Cusco, Peru revived the festival in 1944. It is now a major festival which begins in Cusco and proceeds to an ancient amphitheater a few miles away.
bullet IRAN: Shabe-Yalda (a.k.a. Shab-e Yaldaa) is celebrated in Iran by followers of many religions. It originated in Zoroastrianism, the state religion which preceded Islam. The name refers to the birthday or rebirth of the sun. People gather at home around a korsee -- a low square table -- all night. They tell stories and read poetry. They eat watermelons, pomegranates and a special dried fruit/nut mix. Bonfires are lit outside. 4
bullet ISLAM: During the period 1997 to 1999, the first day of the Islamic lunar month of Ramadan occurred in December. The nominal dates were 1997-DEC-31, 1998-DEC-20 and 1999-DEC-9. In some countries, the actual date for the start of Ramadan depends upon the sighting of the crescent moon, and thus can be delayed by a few days from the nominal date. This is the holiest period in the Islamic year. It honors the lunar month in which the Qura'n was revealed by God to humanity. "It is during this month that Muslims observe the Fast of Ramadan. Lasting for the entire month, Muslims fast during the daylight hours and in the evening eat small meals and visit with friends and family. It is a time of worship and contemplation. A time to strengthen family and community ties." 5

Because Ramadan is part of a lunar-based calendar, it starts about 11 days earlier each year. In the year 2000, the nominal date was NOV-27. Ramadan is thus not associated with the winter solstice as are other religious celebrations. It is just by coincidence that it has occurred during December near the end of the 20th century. It will again be a December observation in the early 2030's


JUDAISM: Jews celebrate an 8 day festival of Hanukkah, (a.k.a. Feast of Lights, Festival of lights, Feast of Dedication, Chanukah, Chanukkah, Hanukah). It recalls the war fought by the Maccabees in the cause of religious freedom. Antiochus, the king of Syria, conquered Judea in the 2nd century BCE. He terminated worship in the Temple and stole the sacred lamp, the menorah, from before the altar.  At the time of the solstice, they rededicated the Temple to a Pagan deity. Judah the Maccabee lead a band of rebels, and succeeding in retaking Jerusalem. They restored the temple and lit the menorah. It was exactly three years after the flame had been extinguished -- at the time of the Pagan rite. 

Although they had found only sufficient consecrated oil to last for 24 hours, the flames burned steadily for eight days.

"Today's menorahs have nine branches; the ninth branch is for the shamash, or servant light, which is used to light the other eight candles. People eat potato latkes, exchange gifts, and play dreidel games. And as they gaze at the light of the menorah, they give thanks for the miracle in the Temple long ago." 6

Modern-day Jews celebrate Hanukkah by lighting one candle for each of the eight days of the festival. Once a minor festival, it has been growing in importance in recent years, perhaps because of the popularity of Christmas.


NATIVE AMERICAN SPIRITUALITY: Many Native American communities hold religious or community events at the time of the solstice.

Two are:

  • The Pueblo tribe observe both the summer and winter solstices. Although the specific details of the rituals differ from pueblo to pueblo, "the rites are built around the sun, the coming new year and the rebirth of vegetation in the spring....Winter solstice rites include...prayerstick making, retreats, altars, emesis, and prayers for increase." 7
  • The Hopi tribe "is dedicated to giving aid and direction to the sun which is ready to 'return' and give strength to budding life." Their ceremony is called "Soyal." It lasts for 20 days and includes "prayerstick making, purification, rituals and a concluding rabbit hunt, feast and blessing..." 7

There are countless stone and wooden structures that were created by Native Americans in the past to detect the solstices and equinoxes.

  • One was called Calendar One by the person who found it in modern times. It is in a natural amphitheater of about 20 acres in size in Vermont. From a stone enclosure in the center of the bowl, one can see a number of vertical rocks and natural features in the horizon which formed the edge of the bowl. At the solstices and equinoxes, the sun rises and sets at notches or peaks in the ridge which surrounded the calendar. 8

  • Another is at Cahoki, adjacent to Collinsville, IL, across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, MI:

woodhenge 10

Today, it is called "Woodhenge" and consists five separate timber circles, one of which is shown above in an artist's reconstruction by Herb Roe. Each circle consists of many vertical wooden posts. The posts were of red cedar, which is considered sacred by many Native American groups. At sunrise on the Winter Solstice, two of the posts; the remains of a nearby mound; and the Sun; formed a straight line. The mound was once a temple built on top of an earthen pyramid with a flat top.The same observation occurs at the time of the Summer Solstice with a different temple and pyramid.

2015: Nativity scene at the Texas state capital building:

There was a religious nativity scene dispayed at the Texas state capital. The Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) placed their "secular Nativity" display beside the religious display. It featuring the Bill of Rights, three American founding fathers, and the Statue of Liberty. There was also a sign that wished everyone a "Happy Winter Solstice." Governor Greg Abbott (R) required that it be removed, and the FFRF removed it.

The FFRF Then sued in District Court against what they called: "unambiguous viewpoint discrimination." They won at that court and again during 2018 at the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The lawsuit also allows other groups to show secular displays. 11

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This topic continues on a third essay

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Web sites with more information on the solstice:

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References used in the preparation of this essay:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Celli Laughing Coyote, "Yule - Winter Solstice: The longest night of the year," at:
  2. Amergub Aryson, "Winter Solstice," at:
  3. "Inti Raymi '98," at:
  4. "Shab-e Yalda," at:
  5. Ramadan on the Net, at: 
  6. "Hanukkah: The festival of lights," at:  
  7. A. Hirschfelder & P. Molin, "The encyclopedia of Native American religions," Facts on File, (1992).
  8. J.W. Mavor & B.E. Dix, "Manitou: The sacred landscape of New England's Native Civilization." Inner Traditions (1989).
  9. "Cahokia Woodhenge," Wikipedia, as on 2018-JUL-09, at:
  10. Image is an artist's conception of the winter solstice sunrise over Fox Mound as seen from the Woodhenge timber circle circa 1000 CE at the Mississippian culture Cahokia Mounds site near Collinsville, Illinois. The temple shown at the top of the Fox Mound no longer exists, All rights to the image are held by the artist, Herb Roe © 2017. The image is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. See:
  11. "Victory! Texas Govt. Cannot Block Atheist Holiday Display in Capitol,"

Site navigation: Home page > Religious information menu > Winter Solstice > here

Copyright © 1999 to 2018, by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 1999-DEC-03
Latest update: 2018-DEC-22
Author: B.A. Robinson


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