Today marks the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere, summer if you are fortunate enough to be in the southern. For travelers in the north, today has the fewest hours of daylight, in the south the longest hours of sunshine.
In modern times Christians all over the world celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ on Christmas on December 25. However, it is believed that this date was chosen to offset older Roman pagan celebrations of Saturnalia and Natalis Invicti. Some believe that celebrating the birth of the “true light of the world” was set in synchronization with the December solstice because from that point onwards, the days began to have more daylight in the northern hemisphere.
Christmas is also referred to as Yule, which derives from the Norse word jól, referring to the pre-Christian winter solstice festival. Yule is the time when ancient believers celebrated the rebirth of the Sun God and with it days with more light. This took place annually around the time of the December solstice and lasted for 12 days. Fires were lit to symbolize the heat, light and life-giving properties of the returning sun. A Yule or Juul log was brought in and burned on the hearth in honor of the Scandinavian god Thor.
In England, Germany, France and other European countries, the Yule log was burned until nothing but ash remained. The ashes were then collected and either strewn on the fields as fertilizer every night until Twelfth Night or kept as a charm and or used in making medicine. French peasants believed that if the ashes were kept under the bed, they would protect the house against thunder and lightning. The present-day custom of lighting a Yule log at Christmas is believed to have originated in the ancient bonfires associated with the feast of Juul.