Since the beginning of humankind, people have observed the winter solstice in the hope that their festivities would bring back their beloved Sun. This phenomenon marks the shortest day and the longest night of the year, as the sun’s maximum daily elevation in the sky is at its lowest. Factors like the axial tilt of the earth, its daily rotation and its orbit around the sun cause the sun to “set” earlier than it usually does.The winter solstice occurs at different times in different locations around the world. The northern hemisphere has a December Solstice and the southern hemisphere has a June Solstice. Literally translated, the word solstice is said to mean “sun stands still”.
Unlike an equinox (which is only a day long), a solstice lasts for 3 days. In the northern hemisphere, the winter solstice occurs from December 22nd to December 24th. As the Earth begins its journey in the opposite direction, the sun seems to get higher and higher in the sky. In ancient times, the shorter days and longer nights caused a lot of concern to the people, who literally worshipped the sun. In fact, they believed that the sun “died” on the 22nd of December and “rose from the dead” on the 25th of December. People all over the world celebrated that day with their own unique rituals as they knew that their days were going to get longer soon.
Many of the ancient traditions continue to this day and are either regarded as special festivities for the winter solstice or have become a part of the more well-known Christmas celebrations. On the other hand, not all rituals have existed for centuries; a few of them are fairly recent and have only been practiced for a decade or so. While certain customs are quite well-known around the world, you may not have even heard of others.
Read on to find out about seven different but traditional ways to celebrate the winter solstice around the world.
Dong Zhi, China
When translated, Dong Zhi literally means “The Arrival of Winter”. It is one of the most important occasions observed by the Chinese as well as some of the other East Asians like the Japanese, Taiwanese, Koreans and Vietnamese. This day falls on or around the 22nd of December, at the time of the winter solstice.
The origins of Dong Zhi have been traced back all the way to the Yin and Yang philosophy of harmony and balance in the cosmos. According to folklore, it started off as an end-of-harvest festival as workers returned from the fields and enjoyed the fruits of the hard work with their families. People believed that after their celebrations, the days would get longer and the additional hours of sunlight would in turn increase the flow of positive energy. Even in present times, may of the elderly Chinese believe that a person turns a year older immediately after this day, instead of the lunar New Year.
Traditionally, Dong Zhi was a time for families to get together and rejoice. One of the activities that usually took place in most of the houses was the making of the Tangyuan, a ball of glutinous rice flour. This was significant as the balls were a symbol of reunion.
Even today, families get together to celebrate and eat Tangyuan. Sometimes, the rice balls are made in bright colors and could be plain or stuffed, as per a person’s preference. These are often cooked in a sweet soup or a savory broth, before being served in a bowl. Each member of the family receives one large Tangyuan along with a number of small ones.
The people in Northern China eat dumplings or wantons made with lamb on this day. In the southern part of the country, noodles are included as a part of the festival food.
In the past, people of a certain clan or those who had the same surname used to gather at their ancestral temples for praying. This was always followed by a sacrificial ceremony and a grand reunion dinner.
St. Lucia’s Day, Sweden
As the Christian world warms up for Advent, the people of Sweden rejoice in Saint Lucia’s Day, also known as the Feast of Saint Lucy. It is one of the most commonly celebrated occasions in the country, which falls on the 13th of December, to kick off the winter season. This day is also observed in similar ways across Norway, Denmark, Croatia, Bosnia and a few parts of Finland.
Legend states that St. Lucy, a 3rd century martyr under the Diocletian Persecution, brought food and aid to the Christians who were hiding in the catacombs under the city. She used a candle-lit wreath, which didn’t just light up the way but also left her hands free to carry as much food as possible. The feast she carried coincided with the winter solstice (before the calendar reforms) and this day has therefore been observed as the festival of lights.
In the present times, St. Lucia’s day festivities include a young girl wearing a white dress with a red sash around the waist and a wreath of candles in her hair. Many of the schools and towns have their own Lucia, who visits old age homes and hospitals, to sing carols. Children walk in a procession and hand out baked items such as ginger snap biscuits (Pepparkakor) and saffron buns (Lussekatts) to people along the way.
The Swedes also light fires on this day, to ward off spirits during the longest night.
Soyal, The United States
Thousands of years ago, the Hopi Indians, or native inhabitants of Northern Arizona, believed that their guardian spirits, the Kachinas (also called Katsinas) descended from their homes in the San Francisco Peaks to return the sun to their world. This occasion was called Soyal and it was celebrated on the 21stof December, for a period of 9 days, to symbolize the second creation phase of the dawn of life.
Even today, prayer sticks are made to prepare for the arrival of the Kachinas, so that they bless the whole community, including the people, homes, animals and plants. During the course of 9 days, scared rituals are performed in chambers called Kivas. Their ceremonies include giving gifts to children, singing and dancing. The elders pass down significant stories and pivotal lessons to the younger ones. The Hopi perform prayers to help the sun start its journey towards its summer home, giving strength to everyone and everything for the upcoming growing season.
In the US, the people of Seattle (Washington) also celebrate the winter solstice for about 5 days, with a festival that includes dancing, costumes, storytelling (folk tales), fiddles, and trolls, from the 19thto the 23rdof December. A number of pop up beer gardens and concerts also take place downtown. Each year, the concerts are based on a unique theme.
Burning The Clocks, England
On the 21st of December, the people of Brighton (East Sussex) come together to celebrate the winter solstice in a lively and fun-filled ritual known as Burning the Clocks.
This practice started in 1993 and has steadily been gaining popularity ever since. The shortest day of the year is marked in a community event, as the locals make their own lanterns from willow and paper. More than 2000 people set off in a parade that passes through the city center to the beach, as they carry white lanterns and wearcostumes with clock faces, to symbolize the passage of time. The streets are lit up in order to bring forth a bright future in the coming year. Fireworks and ceremonial burnings of the lanterns are then carried out on the beach.
In addition to being a lively celebration, Burning the Clocks is a time for thought and reflection as people consider who they are, what they want and where they are going.
In England, the people of Wiltshire also observe the winter solstice on the 21st of December, in a unique manner. Thousands of residents don magnificent costumes and get together to watch the sunrise through the Stonehenge. People from all over, including those from England’s New Age Tribes, usually join in.
Saturnalia, Ancient Rome
This ancient Roman festival was held on the 17th of December (Julian Calendar) to honor Saturn, the agricultural deity who ruled the world during the Golden Age. Over a period of time, the celebrations increased through to the 23rd of December.
Saturnalia usually started off with a sacrifice that was held at the Temple of Saturn, in a Roman forum, and a public banquet. This was followed by an exchange of gifts, continual revelry, and a carnival atmosphere, which completely overturned the social norms of the then Roman society. People were allowed to gamble and masters served their slaves. Catullus, the poet, referred to this holiday as “the best of days”. Most other Roman festivals were observed specifically at one site or city. However, this occasion could be held at home, all across the Empire.
Even though Saturnalia isn’t celebrated anymore, it continued as secular holiday for a long time, even after it was taken off the official calendar. Nevertheless, it has left its traces in a number of modern traditions that occur at the time of the winter solstice.
The Fireballs Ceremony, Scotland
While there are numerous rituals involving fireworks held all across Britain, the Stonehaven’s Fireball Ceremony at Hogmanay is the most memorable one. On the 31st of December, the locals come together and celebrate this joyous occasion. On the old Town House, a bell chimes midnight and the music of a small pipe band is played, to welcome the New Year. The origin of this festival is unknown but people believe it can be traced back to at least 150 years ago.
Thousands of spectators gather to watch the locals swing flaming wire cages above their heads. The whole idea of the ceremony is to burn off the evil spirits left from the old year, so that the ones from the New Year come in fresh and clean.
Prior to the advent of Islam, the majority of the people living in Persia were followers of Zoroastrianism. The occasion of Shab-e-Yalda, more commonly referred to as Yalda, started off in the ancient times as a part of their winter solstice rituals. It also marks the last day of Azar, a Persian month.
Traditionally, Yalda was viewed as the birth of the Sun God, Mithra and the victory of light over dark. Families rejoiced by eating special foods, which included nuts and pomegranates. Many people stayed awake all night to welcome the morning sun.
It is said that many of the traditions that are now associated with the Christmas season were originally a part of the ancient Winter Solstice celebrations followed by people of different cultures across the globe and were adapted into Christianity over a period of time. These include candles, lights, evergreen trees, wreaths, mistletoe, holly, feasting, mulled wine, cider, yule logs, hearth fires, the exchange of gifts, and even Santa Claus.
Some of the other festivals that marked the end of winter and the onset of longer days followed around the world include:
– Brumalia in Rome
– Chaomos in Pakistan
– Feast of Juul in Scandinavia
– Gody in Poland
– Lohri in India
– Newgrange in Ireland
– Santo Tomas in Guatemala
– The Feast of Aset in Egypt
It is interesting to see that a couple of these Winter Solstice celebrations are in existence even today and are still being practiced every year.
The natives of Peru celebrate their Winter Solstice in June, in the form of Inti Raymi / Fiesta Del Sol or The Festival of the Sun. The festivities in Antarctica occur around the same time, and include films, meals, and handmade presents.