Human beings have been paying attention to the ebb and flow of daylight for a very, very long time. Stonehenge, that iconic circle of stone slabs in Great Britain, was built sometime between 3000 BCE and 2000 BCE. Its central sight-lines point to the location where the summer sun rises on the summer solstice (June 21), and where the winter sun sets on the winter solstice (December 21).
In the fifth century BCE, in Persia, December 21st was the most important holiday of the year. It was called Shabe Yaldā, which means "birthday eve." According to Persian mythology, the god Mithra was born on the 22nd of December (to a virgin mother, no less! Dear Christianity: Apparently the Zoroastrians came up with this sacred story first.) He symbolized light, truth, and goodness.
Among Romans, in early centuries of the Common Era, December 25th was the date of the festival of Sol Invictus, the birthday of the returning or unconquered sun. Sol Invictus was the official sun god of the later Roman empire. Elsewhere on the continent, among the Vainakh peoples of the northern Caucasus (think Chechnya), the 25th of December was the date of Malkh, the sun's birthday.
In the 4th century of the Common Era we find the first written documentation of the festival of Yule, a midwinter festival held by Germanic peoples of northern Europe around December 21. (An Old Norse variation on the name also appears in Icelandic eddas of the 13th century.) Yule traditions include the burning of a yule log, keeping a fire burning through the longest night until the sun begins to return.
Among pre-Christian Slavs, the 21st of December was Koročun, the day when the "old sun" of the old year was defeated by darkness; the day transitioned into Koleda, when the "new sun" of the new year is born. One Polish tradition for Koleda was hanging evergreen boughs decorated with apples, colored paper, stars made of straw, and ribbons. (So decorating evergreens was a solstice custom.)
Among Christians, the 25th of December is of course Christmas, which commemorates the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, a first-century rabbi whom they consider to be the son of God. He is referred to in Christian scripture as "the light of the world." In the Christian scriptures, there is a recapitulation of Isaiah's "the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;" for Christians, this light is Jesus.
Jews celebrate light in the darkness of midwinter via the festival of Hanukkah, which begins on the 25th of the Hebrew month of Kislev. (Because our calendar is lunisolar, that date moves around on the Gregorian calendar.) The moon of Kislev is always waning when the festival of Hanukkah begins. A few days into Hanukkah, we get the moon-dark night between the old moon and the new moon - truly winter's darkest night.
During each night of Hanukkah, we kindle an additional light in the hanukkiyah, literally bringing more light into the world as each long winter night (in this hemisphere) passes and is gone. We light our candles in remembrance of the miracle of the oil which burned for eight days instead of for one - a representation of God's presence in the world and in our hearts, burning ever-bright.
I love knowing that since time immemorial, human beings have marked the hinge-point when the earth tilts in the other direction and the days begin to change again. I love knowing that when I kindle my sweet little Hanukkah lights, not only am I part of a chain of Jewish tradition of bringing light into the darkness, but I'm part of a practice which spans much of recorded human history.
Happy Solstice to all! Here's to the returning sun!