The Winter Solstice is the day when the distance between the Tropic of Capricorn and the sun is the shortest. Because of the earth's tilt, the Northern Hemisphere is leaning farther away from the sun than at any other time during the year. This makes the Winter Solstice the shortest day in the Northern Hemisphere where it marks the beginning of winter. In 1997, the Winter Solstice will occur at 2:09 p.m. CST.
Because ancient cultures were unaware of the changes in the Earth's position, they feared that the sunlight would never return. To bring it back, they engaged in many celebrations and ceremonies. In fact, there are more ceremonies and "rituals associated with the winter solstice than any other time of year" .
Hundreds of years ago, a Roman culture celebrated its major festival on the Winter Solstice. When Julius Caesar instituted a new calendar in Rome, the festival fell on December 25, a date that was retained for many years. About 1600 years ago, Pope Julius I chose this date for Christmas in order to replace the pagan tradition with a Christian one.
Many Christmas traditions, including the Yule log, evergreen, and mistletoe are rooted in ancient Yule traditions.