The winter solstice is unique among days of the year--the shortest day and the longest night. Darkness rules but only briefly; from now until the summer solstice, the nights will grow shorter and the days longer.

This turning point was carefully monitored in many ancient cultures. The stones in the circle at Stonehenge were aligned to ascertain the dates of midsummer and midwinter, as well as the positions of the moon throughout the year. Even older than Stonehenge is the tumulus at Newgrange in the Boyne River Valley in Ireland. It was built in approximately 4500 B.C.E. On the morning of the winter solstice, a shaft of sunlight enters the mound, travels down a stone corridor, and illuminates the spiral designs on the back wall of the cave.

The winter solstice has long been celebrated as the birth of the sun, of light, of life itself.

There is lively debate about the purpose of this ancient stone construction. Some scholars believe it is a ritual site enacting the fertilization of the earth by the male sun god. Patricia Monaghan, whose book "O Mother Sun!" elaborates on the many female sun goddesses worshipped from Latvia to Japan, suggests another theory--that the large stone basins found in the cavern at Newgrange were filled with water and became mirrors in which the sun could admire her beauty, just as seeing her radiance in a magic mirror brought the Japanese sun goddess, Amaterasu, out of her cave.

Tracking the Sun
The word solstice means literally "sun stand," describing a phenomenon related to the sun's apparent movement south during the winter. As the sun reaches its southernmost position at the winter solstice, it appears to stand still for a few days. Then it turns around and heads north, bringing with it a few more minutes of light every day.

Excerpted from 'Time to Celebrate: Holidays and Holy Days From Around the World,' a regular column by Waverly Fitzgerald published in SageWoman. This article appears in the Winter 1999-2000 issue, #48.

Although we may not have access to the great solar observatories of Stonehenge or Newgrange, it's still possible to plot the course of the sun in our lives. For example, Native peoples of the Pacific Northwest keep track of the progress of the sun by observing its position relative to the different mountain peaks of the Cascades.

From wherever you are, at sunrise or sunset, you can note the position of the sun over some significant landmark (a tree, the apartment building next door) and track its motion until the point at which it stands still. Inside a building, you can plot the path of the sunlight as it pours in the window, noticing where the square of light falls at different points during the year.

The Birth of the Sun
The winter solstice has long been celebrated as the birth of the sun, of light, of life itself. The ancient Persians set bonfires on this day and sent birds aloft bearing torches of dried grass to stimulate the sun. The Romans celebrated the birth of Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun, on December 25.

The metaphor of the birth of the sun worked well for Christians celebrating the birth of the Son of God, who brings light to the world. Biblical scholars believe that Christ was actually born in fall after the harvest or in spring after the birth of the new animals, both the most likely times for taxation. However, Christ's birth was first celebrated on January 6, then moved in the fourth century to December 25. This change was not popular with everyone; the Christians of Edessa accused the church in Rome of idolatry and "sun worship."

Christ was not the first miraculous child born of a virgin mother. As author Marina Warner points out, "the virgin birth of heroes and sages was a widespread formula in the Hellenistic world: Pythagorus, Plato, Alexander, were all believed to be born of woman by the power of a Holy Spirit."

An earlier "virgin birth" was celebrated in Alexandria on January 6 during the Koreion. The image of the Goddess Kore, decorated with gold stars, was carried seven times around her temple as the priests cried out, "The Virgin has brought forth the Aeon!"

Marija Gimbutas, author of "Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe," calls Aion "the year god." The word "eon" has come to mean a long period of time, but it originally meant vital force or life.