By the calendar, winter is just getting started. By another way of reckoning, it is already on its way out. The increase in light immediately after the winter solstice— it will take place at 12:11 p.m. EST December 21—is imperceptible to the eye but knowable to the psyche.
The solstice is, according to Wikipedia and geography. about.com factoids, an astronomical event that takes place when the North Pole is tilted 23.5 degrees from the sun. It is the shortest day and the longest night of the year, the day when the lunchtime sun is at its lowest altitude above the horizon. The time of the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere is almost always December 21st or 22nd. The dates actually range from the 20th to the 23rd; those variations are due to variations in the calendars cited. The word comes from the Latin sol, meaning sun, and sistere, meaning to stand still.
The sun, of course, isn’t doing anything any different than it ever does; it’s the Earth, its axis, and the tilt of that axis that create the illusion of the sun moving about. Regardless, when what passes for sunshine is a pallid, lusterless orb low in the southern sky, when it seems a lifetime ago that the high-noon sun was white-hot, you begin to believe in the whole standing-still concept. And imagine—if you were north of the Arctic Circle at the time of the winter solstice you wouldn’t see any sun at all.
Go sixty-six and a half degrees south of the equator, though, and the lights would be on a marathon. The ancient peoples may not have known the science behind the solstice, but, without artificial light and artificial time, and with their very existence bound to their ability to know the natural world in ways we cannot fathom, they were likely hyper-aware of the seasons, the corresponding location of the sun, and what they needed at those particular points in time to stay alive.
Seasonal ceremonies—for celebration or placation— evolved and were co-opted and evolved again. The time of the winter solstice celebration, whether by chance or design, seems to be one that is conducive to reflection. It seems apropos during these dark and cold weeks to hunker down, to recharge and regroup, to ponder on good and evil, birth and death, cold and hot, dark and light.
The light! Because after six months of days getting shorter, the light has returned.