Saturday, December 23, 2023

8 Winter Solstice Celebrations Around the World

8 Winter Solstice Celebrations Around the World

Since long before recorded history, the winter solstice and the subsequent “return” of the sun have inspired celebrations & rituals in various societies around the world.

History.Com: Sarah Pruitt, a writer & editor in seacoast New Hampshire.

Updated: September 26, 2023 | Original: December 20, 2016

The winter solstice is the shortest day & longest night of the year. In the Northern Hemisphere, it takes place in late December; in the Southern Hemisphere, it occurs in June. From Ancient Romans to Indigenous Americans, cultures around the world have long held feasts & celebrated holidays around the winter solstice.

1. Saturnalia

Western culture owes many of the traditional midwinter celebrations—including those of Christmas—to Saturnalia, an ancient Roman solstice celebration dedicated to the Saturn, the god of agriculture & time. Though it started out as a one-day celebration earlier in December, this pagan festival later expanded into a riotous weeklong party stretching from December 17 to 24. During this jolliest & most popular of Roman festivals, social norms fell away as everyone indulged in gambling, drinking, feasting & giving gifts.

2. St. Lucia’s Day  Winter Solstice

This traditional festival of lights in Scandinavia honors St. Lucia, one of the earliest Christian martyrs, but was incorporated with earlier Norse solstice traditions after many Norsemen converted to Christianity around 1000 A.D. According to the old Julian Calendar, December 13 (the date that is traditionally given as the day in 304 A.D. when the Romans killed Lucia for bringing food to persecuted Christians hiding in Rome) was also the shortest day of the year.

As a symbol of light, Lucia & her feast day blended naturally with solstice traditions such as lighting fires to scare away spirits during the longest, darkest night of the year. On St. Lucia’s day, girls in Scandinavia wear white dresses with red sashes & wreaths of candles on their heads, as an homage to the candles Lucia wore on her head to light her way as she carried the forbidden food in her arms.

3. Dong Zhi

The Chinese celebration of the winter solstice, Dong Zhi (which means “Winter Arrives”) welcomes the return of longer days & the corresponding increase in positive energy in the year to come. Occurring only six weeks before the Chinese New Year, the festival has its own significance for many people, & is believed to be the day when everyone gets one year older. The celebration may have begun as a harvest festival, when farmers & fisherman took time off to celebrate with their families.

Today, it isn’t an official holiday, but remains an occasion for families to join together to celebrate the year that has passed & share good wishes for the year to come. The most traditional food for this celebration in southern China is the glutinous rice balls known as tang yuan, often brightly colored & cooked in sweet or savory broth. Northern Chinese enjoy plain or meat-stuffed dumplings, a particularly warming & nourishing food for a midwinter celebration.

Chinese traditional dragon lantern illuminated at night during Chinese / Lunar New Year.

4. Shab-e Yalda

On the longest night of the year, Iranians all over the world celebrate the triumph of Mithra, the Sun God, over darkness in the ancient festival of Shab-e Yalda (which translates to “Night of Birth”). According to tradition, people gather together on the longest night of year to protect each other from evil, burning fires to light their way through the darkness & performing charitable acts. Friends & family join in making wishes, feasting on nuts, pomegranates & other festive foods & reading poetry, especially the work of the 14th-century Persian poet Hafiz. Some stay awake all night to rejoice in the moment when the sun rises, banishing evil & announcing the arrival of goodness.

5. Inti Raymi

In Peru, like the rest of the Southern Hemisphere, the winter solstice is celebrated in June. The Inti Raymi (Quechua for “sun festival”), which takes place on the solstice, is dedicated to honoring Inti, the sun god. Before the Spanish conquest, the Incas fasted for three days before the solstice. Before dawn on the fourth day, they went to a ceremonial plaza & waited for the sunrise.

When it appeared, they crouched down before it, offering golden cups of chicha (a sacred beer made from fermented corn). Animals—including llamas—were sacrificed during the ceremony, & the Incas used a mirror to focus the sun’s rays & kindle a fire. After the conquest, the Spaniards banned the Inti Raymi holiday, but it was revived in the 20th century (with mock sacrifices) & continues today.

6. Shalako 

For the Zuni, one of the Native American Pueblo peoples in western New Mexico, the winter solstice signifies the beginning of the year, & is marked with a ceremonial dance called Shalako. After fasting, prayer & observing the rising & setting of the sun for several days before the solstice, the Pekwin, or “Sun Priest” traditionally announces the exact moment of itiwanna, the rebirth of the sun, with a long, mournful call.

With that signal, the rejoicing & dancing begin, as 12 kachina clowns in elaborate masks dance along with the Shalako themselves—12-foot-high effigies with bird heads, seen as messengers from the gods. After four days of dancing, new dancers are chosen for the following year, & the yearly cycle begins again.

7. Soyal

Like the Zuni, the Hopi of northern Arizona are believed to be among the descendants of the mysterious Anasazi people, ancient Native Americans who flourished beginning in 200 B.C. (As the Anasazi left no written records, we can only speculate about their winter solstice rites, but the placement of stones & structures in their ruins, such as New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon, indicate they certainly took a keen interest in the sun’s movement.)

In the Hopi solstice celebration of Soyal, the Sun Chief takes on the duties of the Zuni Pekwin, announcing the setting of the sun on the solstice. An all-night ceremony then begins, including kindling fires, dancing & sometimes gift-giving. Traditionally, the Hopi sun-watcher was not only important to the winter solstice tradition, as his observation of the sun also governed the planting of crops & the observance of Hopi ceremonies & rituals all year long.

8. Toji

In Japan, the winter solstice is less a festival than a traditional practice centered around starting the new year with health & good luck. It’s a particularly sacred time of the year for farmers, who welcome the return of a sun that will nurture their crops after the long, cold winter. People light bonfires to encourage the sun’s return; huge bonfires burn on Mount Fuji each December 22.

A widespread practice during the winter solstice is to take warm baths scented with yuzu, a citrus fruit, which is said to ward off colds & foster good health. Many public baths & hot springs throw yuzu in the water during the winter solstice. Many Japanese people also eat kabocha squash—known in the United States as Japanese pumpkin—on the solstice, as it is thought to bring luck.