The winter solstice is a very subtle event, yet one of vast psychological import living in Maine, at 44˚North, where car headlights come on at 3:30 or so in the afternoon. Just knowing that we’ve crossed this divide is meaningful as we pursue our winter lives. It plays well against the other holidays of this time of the year, certainly no coincidence.
The winter solstice marks the shortest day and the longest night of the year. The sun appears at its lowest point in the sky, and its noontime elevation appears to be the same for several days before and after the solstice. Hence the origin of the word solstice, which comes from the Latin solstitium, from sol, “sun,” and –sttitium, “a stoppage.” Following the winter solstice, the days begin to grow longer and the nights shorter.
There is an extraordinary history of the significance of this occasion in cultures at particularly high or low latitudes around the world.
Here’s just part of what Wikipedia has to say on the matter: The solstice itself may have been a special moment of the annual cycle of the year even during neolithic times. Astronomical events, which during ancient times controlled the mating of animals, sowing of crops and metering of winter reserves between harvests, show how various cultural mythologies and traditions have arisen. This is attested by physical remains in the layouts of late Neolithic and Bronze Age archaeological sites such as Stonehenge in Britain and Newgrange in Ireland.
The winter solstice may have been immensely important because communities were not certain of living through the winter, and had to be prepared during the previous nine months. Starvation was common in winter between January and April, also known as “the famine months”. In temperate climates, the midwinter festival was the last feast celebration, before deep winter began. Most cattle were slaughtered so they would not have to be fed during the winter, so it was almost the only time of year when a supply of fresh meat was available. The majority of wine and beer made during the year was finally fermented and ready for drinking at this time.