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Winter Solstice in Different Cultures

All around the world, religions have given this day – the shortest day of the year – special significance....

In Britain, an ancient civilization built Stonehenge, oriented towards the sunset. 

Across the Irish Sea, another civilization looked to the sunrise instead.  They built a tunnel deep into the heart of an artificial hill.  At Newgrange, priests huddled inside the cavern, waiting for the first morning light to penetrate the length of the tunnel into their inner sanctum. 

In Central America, Mayan priests used elaborate geometry to coordinate three overlapping calendars. 

Almost without exception, civilizations have attached mythical overtones to the winter solstice.

In the high Andes, Inca priests attached an imaginary rope to a hitching post, to anchor the sun before it could slip any lower in the sky.  The Incas built houses and temples out of cut and shaped stone.  But the hitching post was carved from solid bedrock – the only thing strong enough to hold the sun in place. 

In Persia, the longest night marked the peak of strength for the evil god Ahriman.  The next day, the good god, Ahura Mazda, the Lord of Wisdom, began winning the battle of good and evil again. 

The Slavic peoples took their belief further.  They believed that at the solstice the god Hors was actually killed by the forces of darkness.  The next day, Hors was resurrected.  Some Bulgarians still perform a chain-dance called a horo or khoro. 

In Scandinavia, where winter nights are particularly long, the Norse lit a Yule log.  As long as it gave warmth and light, for anywhere from three to twelve days, they feasted.

It's probably no coincidence that our society celebrates Christmas around the same time of year – whether or not Jesus was really born on December 25....

Perhaps every religion finds its own way to symbolize the return of hope in the midst of darkness.

- Jim Taylor, writing in Wood Lake Books' Rumors e-newsletter, 12/23/07