Winter Holidays Celebrating the Solstice

Nativity of Jesus by Christus Petrus c. 1445-1450 at the National Gallery of Art.
Nativity of Jesus by Christus Petrus c. 1445-1450 at the National Gallery of Art. Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia

The Winter Solstice and Winter Holidays:

The Northern Hemisphere Winter Solstice, between December 20 and 23, is the time of year when the night is longest and the day shortest. What happened to the sun? If, in ancient times, you believed in gods and goddesses who take an active interest in human life, you might have thought it smart to do something to make the gods happy again so they might bring back the light. Why not honor them either with a great festival to persuade them to bring it back or a kind of gift-giving birthday party for the sun's annual rebirth? This may be at the origin of the winter solstice holidays.

The Saturnalia:

The Saturnalia was a major holiday for the ancient Romans, with drinking, gift-giving, bonfires, candles, role reversals for slaves and masters. It lasted a variable number of days from 3-7 or more, depending on how successful the emperor was at legislating. Saturn (Cronus in Greek) was the original creator of man in the Golden Age, when there was no winter and everyone was happy. Saturn was ousted by his son Jupiter (Zeus) and life took a decidedly downward turn. See Saturnalia.

Hanukkah - Jewish Festival of Lights:

Hanukkah (Hanukah / Hanuka / Chanukah) is a festival of lights that is symbolized by the candelabrum known as a menorah. Hanukkah celebrates a lighting miracle when one night's worth of oil lit candles for 8 days. Special foods and gift-giving are also a part of Hanukkah. See Hanukkah.

Dies Natalis Solis Invicti :

Mithras was an Iranian god who was popular with Roman soldiers. Mithras was created by the chief deity, Ahura-Mazda, to save the world. The day of the virgin birth of Mithras was December 25 (the solstice) it was also referred to as Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, which means the birthday of the unconquered sun.


Brumalia was a Greek winter holiday associated with Dionysus and wine. By the time of the winter Brumalia, the wine was ready to be poured into jars for drinking. Although a Greek holiday, the name Brumalia is Latin, bruma being the Latin for Winter Solstice.


In A.D. 354, the birth of Jesus Christ was set on December 25. The date is not believed to be accurate and is the same as the birth date of Mithras. Like the other holidays, Christmas is celebrated with festivity and gift-giving. It seems to have taken over Mithras and Saturnalia traditions.

  • Dating Christmas
  • Some similarities between Mithras' birth and Christmas
  • Advent
  • Epiphany
  • Why X-mas?
  • St. Nicholas and Santa Claus
  • 3 Wise Men


The Hindu Sankranti historically takes place on the Solstice, although the date is January 14, which gives evidence to how much time has elapsed since it started. It is believed that people who die on this day end the reincarnation cycle, for which reason it is very lucky. Gifts are exchanged, sweets and other special food are consumed, and bonfires are lit on Sankranti eve, which is known as Lohari.

Boar's Head Carol:

Besides light and gift-giving, food is a big part of the millennia of holiday tradition. The English Boar's Head carol relates to the presentation of a boar's head to royalty. In Norse mythology, a boar was presented to Freyr at the solstice. For more on the boar, and the song lyrics, see Boar's Head Carol.

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Your Citation
Gill, N.S. "Winter Holidays Celebrating the Solstice." Learn Religions, Apr. 5, 2023, Gill, N.S. (2023, April 5). Winter Holidays Celebrating the Solstice. Retrieved from Gill, N.S. "Winter Holidays Celebrating the Solstice." Learn Religions. (accessed May 30, 2023).