Why do we celebrate at a time of year that seems to offer little to celebrate about to anyone living very much north of the Equator? Why do our celebrations involved lights and evergreen trees? The ultimate answer is axial tilt, of course. As the Earth moves around the Sun, the Sun seems to move northward, then southward, then northward, then southward, …
But if you were living centuries before modern times, that would not be so apparent. What would keep the Sun from going farther and farther south until the whole world freezes? So it would be reassuring to note that the Sun would be coming back. Why lights? That’s what that time of year lacks, with the Sun rather far south and not up for very long — if at all. Why evergreens? Because they don’t drop their leaves, giving them the appearance of being alive through the winter, and not dead, like most other plants.
Needless to say, winter-solstice celebrations acquired lots of other lore, like the birth of Jesus Christ, Santa Claus, his reindeer, etc. In fact, some people in recent decades have invented solstice celebrations, like Ron Karenga’s pseudo-African holiday Kwanzaa and the New Jersey Humanist Network’s HumanLight. But I’m concerned about the core here.
Winter-solstice celebrations are older than Xianity. Germanic peoples celebrated Yule at that time, and Scandinavians still call Christmas by their languages’ versions of “Yule”. So we English speakers could bring back that old name. Romans had celebrated Saturnalia at about this time. Etc.
It’s hard to look back much further, because of a lack of written records. But several ancient monuments mark out various astronomical landmarks like the solstices and equinoxes. Their builders must have done that because they thought those landmarks worth marking out, and likely celebrating.
Monuments like Newgrange and Dowth in Ireland, and Maeshowe in the Orkney Islands, which are about 5000 years old, and which are oriented toward the Sun’s winter-solstice path. Newgrange is oriented so that the Sun shines into it when it rises on the winter solstice.
But the champion so far is the 6900-year-old Goseck circle in Germany. It has gaps in it aligned to the north, to the winter solstice sunrise, and to the winter solstice sunset. So one could stand in its center and watch the Sun rise and set through its gaps on that day. And a great day it may have been back then.