Dr. Leonard Perry of the University of Vermont tells us in her article The Plants of the Winter Solstice:
"The winter solstice...is the shortest day and the longest night of the year.
"The early Romans, Egyptians, Celtics, and others observed that by December the fields were no longer producing crops, leaves had fallen off the trees, and many plants had died. Daylight hours were waning, and the sun was getting lower and lower in the sky. They feared the sun would completely disappear, leaving them without light and warmth.
"They lit bonfires to light up the skies on this longest of nights both for warmth and to coax the sun to return. They thought the fire would call out to the sun, asking it to stop its descent into the earth and return to the sky.
"The Saxons and Celtics often kept an oak log--usually the entire trunk of a tree--burning for 12 hours on the eve of the solstice. If the fire did not go out during this period, the household would be protected and see an abundance of crops, good health, and other desirable things in the coming year."
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