Today is the Winter Solstice (in the Northern Hemisphere), marking the shortest day and the longest night of the year, when the sun appears at its lowest point in the sky. The Latin word refers to the “stoppage” of the sun, as it appears to hover at this low point for several days, and certainly this was recognized as an important time, both before and after the coming of Christianity. Indeed, the solstice often appears on medieval calendars as a “red-letter day”, so important that it was written in red ink. As you can see on this December psalter calendar, the only two red-letter days are those when the sun moves into Capricorn and the winter solstice. Even the nativity–Christmas Day–is written in black ink.
This calendar also illustrates another convention of medieval Christianity: the overlay of Christian holidays (holy days) on pagan ritual days. The Winter Solstice is recognized as the winter solstice, but also as the day of St. Thomas the Apostle, one of the 12 apostles of Jesus, who first doubted the resurrection of Christ and later compensated for this doubt by spreading the good news far and white, certainly outside the Roman Empire, perhaps as far as India. My casual survey of a sampling of psalters from the twelfth century on revealed that St. Thomas gradually replaced the solstice as a red-letter day, but medieval scribes still recognized the importance of the waxing, waning, and “hovering” sun in other ways and texts. The sun seems to get more vivid with the centuries, and even becomes quite humanistic with the Renaissance!
British Library MSS Arundel 60 (after 1073) and Royal 17 E VII (14th century: God creating the sun and the moon); Here come the sun: Pierpont Morgan Library MS M. 14 (late 15th century) and BL MS Sloane 1171 (sixteenth century).
The Winter Solstice returns to modern calendars, sometimes with St. Thomas and sometimes not, and achieves recognition as a natural day in the seasonal year. There’s something both reverent and hopeful about the day, as we know that the trend towards more darkness will be gradually reversed in the coming days and months.
In typical traditional fashion, Kate Greenaway sticks with St. Thomas’s Day in her 1892 Almanac (NYPL Digital Gallery), while British modern artist Barbara Hepworth depicts the Winter Solstice in a more graphic way (Tate Museum, 1971).