For folks living in the earth's northern hemisphere the winter solstice is when the sun sets and rises at its most southerly points on the eastern and western horizons. The summer solstice, which occurs exactly six months from today, is when the sun sets and rises at its most northerly points on the eastern and western horizons. The solstices are caused by what is known as axial tilt. In its orbit around the sun the earth’s spin axis maintains a 23 degree tilt in relation to its orbital plane. It’s easy to understand axial tilt if you imagine a pencil sticking straight up and down through the center of a ball. Now tilt the ball and pencil about 23 degrees from upright. That’s axial tilt. Without axial tilt there would be no winter, summer, fall or spring.
Today the earth's northern hemisphere reached the maximum point that it can be tilted away from the sun. From this day forward, as the earth makes its way around the sun, the days will begin to lengthen as more of the northern hemisphere is exposed to the sun. Six months from now the earth's Northern hemisphere will have reached the maximum point that it can be tilted toward the sun and that will mark the summer solstice. The summer solstice occurs on June 20, the first day of summer.
To our ancient ancestors the winter solstice was a day of mourning and celebration; mourning for the death of the sun who was falling closer to the horizon, making each day shorter, and giving less light. But also, it was a time of celebration when the sun was reborn and began climbing higher into the winter sky and giving more light and heat through the following days. Many ancient cultures celebrated festivals during this time. One ancient Northern European winter solstice festival called Yule lasted for 12 days. Yule was celebrated by burning a giant log intended to provide warmth for the duration of the festival. Today, many modern families still take part in the ritual of going out and bringing in the yule log to place in the fireplace on Christmas Eve. Other ancient winter solstice practices include placing wreaths on doors, singing to the neighbors and decorating trees. It’s amazing how many of these ancient rituals have carried over into our modern Christmas holiday and winter festivities.