Neopagan (New Age) traditions all tend to center around the winter solstice on December 21 or end-of-year celebrations. There is plenty of historical precedent in many cultures for such traditions. The last five days of the Mayan calendar, for example, were nameless and considered extremely dangerous along the lines of the Celtic festival Samhain, which was later incorporated into Christianity as Halloween. During this period, no barriers existed between mortals and gods, leaving gods free to indulge in some serious destruction.
Soyalangwul among the Zuni of the southwestern United States, is celebrated on the winter solstice, and marks the beginning of the new year.
A pre-Zoroastrian festival from the 2nd millennium BCE, Shabe Chelle, celebrated the Winter Solstice as a victory of light over darkness, and the birth of Mithras the sun god. It survives to this day in Iran as the festival of Yalda.
In Sri Lanka, a famous Buddhist nun, Sanghamitta, is commemorated on the Solstice.
In India, Makara Sankranti is celebrated on January 14. The only Hindu festival not based on the lunar calendar, it marks the entrance of the sun into the constellation Capricorn. The festival is intended to celebrate the increase in the length of days after the winter solstice. Many of the rituals involve exchanges of food.
In neopagan traditions, Wiccans and Ásatrú (Germanic and Icelandic neopagans) both celebrate Yule. Wiccans observe the single day as a Sabbat commemorating the rebirth of the sun, while the Ásatrú observe a 12-day festival beginning with the solstice.
The Lithuanian Romuva have revived the Latvian festival of Ziemassvetki, dedicated to the birth of the Latvian creator or sky god, Dievs. They celebrate this on December 23, 24 and 25. The two weeks leading up to the original festival (December 25) were known as the “season of ghosts”.
In Celtic neopagan traditions, the solstice holds significance as the major festival after Samhain. Since the 18th century, neo-druids have revived and celebrated it as “Alban Arthan”. A much older festival, Wren Day (December 26), celebrated in Celtic areas like Wales, Ireland and the Isle of Man, may reflect some actual original druidic traditions. On Wren Day, “Wrenboys” would kill a wren and wander from house to house with musicians, singing and asking for donations.
The origins of Christmas are decidedly tangled. This makes the debate over its secularization into a holiday where you eat a lot and get nice stuff more fraught. Some Christians have tried to make the holiday more “religious” (more Christian, in other words) while others have rejected it as a pagan festival. Meanwhile, the neopagans have embraced it as a solstice celebration and emphasized those pagan origins. But either way, it’s not going anywhere. Christmas is such a popular holiday that people are expanding it and using it for their own purposes. It’s probably the only religious festival that we can truly say is for everyone.