To most of us the day passes unnoticed but to those of the Pagan religions it is an important festival which they call Yule, a traditional Celtic fire festival. Paganism covers many old religions whose beliefs follow those of the Norse and old North European tribes. The Pagan sect we know best are the Druids. These ancient Celts thought that the sun stood still for twelve days in the middle of winter and during this time a log was lit to conquer the darkness, banish evil spirits and bring luck for the coming year. A priest would would cut the mistletoe that grew on the oak tree and give it as a blessing. Oaks were seen as sacred and the winter fruit of the mistletoe was a symbol of life in the dark winter months. These people spent most of their time outside surrounded by nature, the seasons and the weather were very important to them, the sun and the moon being of particular importance.
The people of north saw the sun as a wheel that changed the seasons and it is from their word houl that the term Yule comes from.
Stonehenge, often thought of for its Summer Solstice celebrations, is linked to the winter solstice too, many gather as the sun sets right in the middle of three great stones, known as the Trilithon. The Trilithon consists of two large vertical stones supporting a third, horizontal stone across the top. This great Trilithon faces outwards from the center of the monument, with its smooth flat face turned toward the midwinter sun.
What many people will not know, I didn't, is that the primary axes of Stonehenge seems to have been carefully aligned on a sight line pointing to the winter solstice sunset.
In mid-winter the Norsemen lit bonfires, told stories and drank sweet ale.
The Romans also celebrated the end of the year and the birth of the new with their Suturnalia, a seven day festival beginning on the 17th December where they brought greenery into their homes, they lit candles and gave each other presents. Many of these customs are still followed today. They have been incorporated into the Christian and secular celebrations of Christmas.