iOS app Android app More

Winter Solstice 2011: Shortest Day Of The Year Marked By Pagan Celebrations (PHOTOS)

The Huffington Post    
First Posted: 12/19/2011 1:31 pm Updated: 12/21/2011 4:28 pm

Loading Slideshow...
  • Brighton, England

    BRIGHTON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 21: Starlings come home to roost on Brighton's Old Pier as the sun sets on December 21, 2011 in Brighton, England. Today marks the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

  • Brighton, England

    BRIGHTON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 21: People watch starlings come home to roost on Brighton's Old Pier as the sun sets on December 21, 2011 in Brighton, England. Today marks the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

  • Brighton, England

    BRIGHTON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 21: A giant lantern burns at the end of the Burning The Clocks Festival on Brighton Beach on December 21, 2011 in Brighton, England. The annual celebration is enjoyed by thousands of people who carry paper lanterns through the streets of Brighton culminating on Brighton Beach where the lanterns are burnt and the Winter Solstice is marked. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

  • Brighton, England

    BRIGHTON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 21: People carry lanterns at the Burning The Clocks Festival on December 21, 2011 in Brighton, England. The annual celebration is enjoyed by thousands of people who carry paper lanterns through the streets of Brighton culminating on Brighton Beach where the lanterns are burnt and the Winter Solstice is marked. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

  • Wiltshire, England

    WILTSHIRE, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 22: Druids, pagans and revellers cheer as the sun rises at Stonehenge on December 22, 2011 in Wiltshire, England. The unseasonable warm weather encouraged a larger than normal crowd to gather at the famous historic stone circle to celebrate the sunrise closest to the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

  • Stonehenge, England

    STONEHENGE, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 22: Hundreds of druids and pagans celebrate the winter solstice at Stonehenge on December 22, 2009 in Wiltshire, England. Hundreds of people gathered at the famous stone circle to celebrate the sunrise closest to the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

  • Stonehenge, England

    SALISBURY, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 22: Druids conduct a sunrise service at Stonehenge on December 22, 2010 in Wiltshire, England. Hundreds of people gathered at the famous historic stone circle to celebrate the sunrise closest to the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

  • Stonehenge, England

    SALISBURY, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 22: Revellers dance in the snow after druids conducted a sunrise service at Stonehenge on December 22, 2010 in Wiltshire, England. Hundreds of people gathered at the famous historic stone circle to celebrate the sunrise closest to the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

  • Stonehenge, England

    SALISBURY, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 22: Druids conduct a sunrise service at Stonehenge on December 22, 2010 in Wiltshire, England. Hundreds of people gathered at the famous historic stone circle to celebrate the sunrise closest to the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

  • Stonehenge, England

    STONEHENGE, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 22: Druid Arthur Uther Pendragon, formally known as John Rothwell, conducts a service at Stonehenge on December 22, 2009 in Wiltshire, England. Hundreds of people gathered at the famous stone circle to celebrate the sunrise closest to the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

  • Stonehenge, England

    WILTSHIRE, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 21: A woman touches the stones at Stonehenge on December 21, 2008 in Wiltshire, England. Hundreds of people gathered at the famous stone circle to watch the sun rise on Winter Solstice - the shortest day of the year. (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

  • Stonehenge, England

    SALISBURY, UNITED KINGDOM - DECEMBER 22: A girl rests between stones as a man plays the didgeridoo at Stonehenge on December 22, 2006 in Salisbury, England. Hundreds of people attended the Winter Solstice at Stonehenge, the cause for a pagan celebration, held on the shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. (Photo by Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)

  • Stonehenge, England

    SALISBURY, UNITED KINGDOM - DECEMBER 22: A Solstice participant makes his way from Stonehenge on December 22, 2006 in Salisbury, England. Hundreds of people attended the Winter Solstice at Stonehenge, the cause for a pagan celebration, held on the shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. (Photo by Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)

  • Xian, China

    XIAN, CHINA - DECEMBER 22: (CHINA OUT) A woman dressed in traditional costume of Han nationality, offers food as scarifies to Heaven, during a heaven-worship ceremony to mark the winter solstice festival which falls today, at the Xian Museum on December 22, 2007 in Xian of Shaanxi Province, China. The Winter Solstice became a festival during the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD). The Northern hemisphere on this day experiences the shortest daytime and longest nighttime. (Photo by China Photos/Getty Images)

  • Sofia, Bulgaria

    Sofia, BULGARIA: Bulgarian dancers from the town of Yambol perform an old pagan traditional dance named Koleduvane, in central Sofia, 20 December 2005. Koleduvane is an important ancient pagan festival which coincides with the Winter Solstice in December, and celebrates the birth of the Sun. The Christian religion has tied it to the festival for the birth of Christ. Thus, usually.Koleduvane is performed at Christmas eve to wish health, good luck and fertility to the heads of households, to their houses, livestock and land. (Valentina Petrova/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Stockholm, Sweden

    Stockholm, SWEDEN: Julia Phan, 11, stands still while Rose-Marie von Braun (L), and Anne-Marie Soderqvist (R) light candles on her crown of Lucia Queen of Lights and other girls dressed as her maidens stand in the background at the Johannes School in Stockholm 13 December 2005. In the darkest time of the year, near the winter solstice, Swedish tradition bids young girls to act Lucia and her maidens, waiting upon people on their bedside, offering them buns and coffee. Boys dress up like Santa Claus or Saint Staffan. Lucia originally was a Sicilian saint who had sufffered martyrdom. (Jack Mikrut/AFP/Getty Images)

  • San Andres, El Salvador

    Mayan priests make offerings during an indigenous ceremony commemorating the winter solstice at the ceremonial center of San Andres, in San Andres, El Salvador, Sunday Dec 18. 2011. The winter solstice falls on Thursday Dec. 22. (AP Photo/Luis Romero)

  • San Andres, El Salvador

    A Mayan priest leads people in an indigenous ceremony to commemorate the winter solstice at the ceremonial center of San Andres, in San Andres, El Salvador, Sunday Dec 18. 2011. The winter solstice falls on Thursday Dec. 22. (AP Photo/Luis Romero)

  • Shaoxing, China

    n a picture taken on November 8, 2011, Chinese workers start the annual Shaoxing wine-making for the lunar calendar winter solstice at a Shaoxing winery, in Shaoxing, east China's Zhejiang province. Shaoxing wine is one of the most famous varieties of Huangjiu, or traditional Chinese fermented rice wine, and been in production since the imperial days, and large quantities are stored in the classic Shaoxing wine containers over long periods of time. Shaoxing wines are now exported and sold as vintage wines in may countries. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Minsk, Belarus

    People enjoy a sleigh ride as they celebrate the Christmas carol rite (Koliady) in the village of Pogost, some 250 km south-east of Minsk, on January 7, 2011. Koliady is an ancient pagan holiday initially celebrated on winter solstice but since appropriated to celebrate Christmas, New Year according to the Julian calendar, and other winter holidays. (Viktor Drachev/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Edinburgh, Scotland

    The New Years Eve celebration of Scotland is called Hogmanay. Photo: Torchlight procession on Calton Hill, Edinburgh


In 2011, the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere will occur on Dec. 22, 2011 at 12:30 a.m. EST. In North America, time zones that are west of the EST will experience the winter solstice on Dec 21st. To calculate the turning point in your time zone, click here. Officially the first day of winter, the winter solstice occurs when the North Pole is tilted 23.5 degrees away from the sun. This is the longest night of the year, meaning that despite the cold winter, the days get progressively longer after the winter solstice until the summer solstice in 2012.

The winter solstice is celebrated by many people around the world as the beginning of the return of the sun, and darkness turning into light. The Talmud recognizes the winter solstice as "Tekufat Tevet." In China, the "Dongzhi" Festival is celebrated on the Winter Solstice by families getting together and eating special festive food.

Until the 16th century, the winter months were a time of famine in northern Europe. Most cattle were slaughtered so that they wouldn't have to be fed during the winter, making the solstice a time when fresh meat was plentiful. Most celebrations of the winter solstice in Europe involved merriment and feasting. In pre-Christian Scandinavia, the Feast of Juul, or Yule, lasted for 12 days celebrating the rebirth of the sun god and giving rise to the custom of burning a Yule log.

In ancient Rome, the winter solstice was celebrated at the Feast of Saturnalia, to honor Saturn, the god of agricultural bounty. Lasting about a week, Saturnalia was characterized by feasting, debauchery and gift-giving. With Emperor Constantine's conversion to Christianity, many of these customs were later absorbed into Christmas celebrations.

One of the most famous celebrations of the winter solstice in the world today takes place in the ancient ruins of Stonehenge, England. Thousands of druids and pagans gather there to chant, dance and sing while waiting to see the spectacular sunrise.

FOLLOW HUFFPOST RELIGION