If you live in the Northern Hemisphere, 21 December is going to be a very short day. Winter solstice has arrived, and in honour of the year’s shortest day and longest night, we’re going around the world to see how it’s celebrated. By Eshita Srinivas
December truly is the most wonderful time of the year. Between Christmas and the impending New Year, there are a range of cultural and religious festivals to celebrate such as Hannukah, Boxing Day, Kwanzaa, and Omisoka. Also, featured in this list? The winter solstice, which marks the beginning of winter and is the day with the shortest amount of sunlight.
The phenomenon of a short day and long night occurs due to the Earth reaching its maximum tilt while on its axis away from the sun. This is why those living in Australia and New Zealand in the Southern Hemisphere will be celebrating their longest day and shortest night at the same time. This annual astronomical event has always been a reason for merriment across different cultures and countries, some of which place greater emphasis on it being the time of the year with the longest night. From church services and family gatherings to sacred rituals and sombre practices, we’ve rounded up a list of places that have a unique way of celebrating the winter solstice.
10 places around the world with unique celebrations around the winter solstice
A 5,200-year-old monument that was built by Stone-Age farmers, Newgrange’s passageways and chambers are entirely aligned with the winter solstice. Within the passage tomb’s entrance is an opening called the roof-box, which fills with light during sunrises on the days around the solstice and illuminates the entire space. This stunning event lasts for 17 minutes, starting at 9:00 am. In the past, the structure served as both a grave and a calendar of sorts for people in the Neolithic age, who also put objects of importance in the tomb with the dead.
It is also believed to have been a symbol of new beginnings, and every year, several people gather at the structure on the day of the winter solstice to witness the dawn. Due to the popularity of the event and how it’s celebrated, visitors need to apply for a lottery drawing to get a chance to witness the sunrise from within the chambers. However, owing to COVID-19 restrictions, winter solstice at the spot will be live-streamed instead for the second year in a row.
Another structure that lines up with the movements of the sun, the Stonehenge is a stone circle monument and cemetery in Salisbury, England. Although the reason behind it being built is still unknown, it is speculated that the spot served as a place for the coronation of Danish kings, an astronomical device to predict eclipses and solar events, or even a sacred spot for the worship of ancestors. Part of the allure of the structure is also that the stones produce a loud clunking sound that echoes when struck.
Every year during the winter solstice, people gather around the archaeological site after the night of the winter solstice, free of cost, to watch the rays of the morning sun bounce off of the stones as it rises. Usually restricted and monitored due to the erosion of the stones, this is the day when visitors can walk right up to the stones to celebrate. This year, the event will be live-streamed for free, and those who wish to visit in person will have to get tested against COVID-19 and follow appropriate safety measures.
Home to the Solstice Lantern Festival, Vancouver in Canada celebrates the longest night of the year with processions and fire performances. As an ode to old-world traditions, the event also includes music as well as workshops on making food and lanterns. In some cases, there might be a Labyrinth of Light, with 600 candles, for visitors to navigate as a symbol of letting go of old thoughts and looking forward to a new year.
The fun, family-friendly event is a time for the community to get together and is free to attend, save for a few venues that are ticketed. This year, part of the event will be streamed online. Those attending the celebrations on the ground will need to follow COVID-19 appropriate measures.
The Japanese celebrate the winter solstice through Toji, a series of customs that are suited to the weather and serve as a means of rejuvenation in the new season. The most popular of these is the hot yuzu bath, a practice believed to have started in the Edo period (1603 –1868), that many bathhouses adopt during this time, even today. This is said to help keep the body warm, soothe dry skin, ward off any seasonal illness, and keep demons and bad luck at bay. In addition to this, families indulge in winter pumpkin, kabocha, which is packed with vitamins that will stave off the cold. In a modern twist of the age-old tradition, a few zoos also use this time to pamper rodents called capybaras (who love yuzu baths) by throwing the fruit into the warm water for them to soak in.
China celebrates Dongzhi, which translates to “winter’s extreme,” on the day of the winter solstice. During this time, families gather to eat a meal and visit ancestral graves. In Northern China where temperatures get bitterly cold, people indulge in warm food and drink to stay warm. The custom comes from the belief that when the days are short, people lack sufficient Yang (warm) energy and need to eat food high in it to balance it out against their Yin (cold) energy. These foods include mutton hot pot, babao porridge, jiaozi (dumplings) and the popular tangyuan, which is balls of cooked white rice with a bean or meat filling and warming spices and ingredients like ginger and sesame. This is often served in a bowl with a broth or sweet soup and symbolises prosperity and reunion.
Chelle night or Shab-e-Yalda lights up Iran every winter solstice. The festivities begin when the sun sets and the dark sets in on the longest night of the day. Translated to “rebirth,” Yalda is the time for families to gather and light candles that are to be left burning until the following morning, share stories passed down through generations, and indulge in a feast. This feast includes watermelon and pomegranates since traditional beliefs held that eating summer fruits in winter will protect a person from illness. In the past, summer fruits were buried under branches and leaves in a storage system called “anbar,” which kept the fruits from rotting until the winter. Today, anything that’s unavailable is imported from different countries, in time for Yalda.
Historically in Korea, the winter solstice was seen as the beginning of a new year and was referred to as “little New Year’s day.” The day, called Dongji, is just as important and symbolic today, and Koreans sit down to eat a red bean porridge with rice dumplings called patjuk to ring in a new cycle. The colour red is believed to be auspicious, keeping bad spirits away and bringing in a prosperous new time. The serving custom is to take as many dumplings as your age. Other customs include handing out calendars, just like Korean kings would in the past and gifting socks.
With the Fiesta De Santo Tomas, in honour of the town’s patron saint, Guatemala celebrates for a whole week leading up to the winter solstice. This could possibly be due to the fact that the Catholic ceremony aligned with the Mayan rituals that occur during this time. The festivities include colourful costumes, parades, masks, fireworks, music, and more. To honour the sun god, as a part of the solstice rituals, Mayans climb a pole as tall as a three-story building with ropes tied around their feet and then leap from the top.
Winter solstice traditions are diverse in the USA. Some are steeped in the indigenous culture of the country while others are more religious. In Arizona, Hopi people celebrate it by honouring their ancestral spirits, called kachina, in a ceremony called the Soyal solstice ceremony that’s led by the tribal chief. In it, ritual dances are used to summon the sun back. In addition to this, gifts are exchanged, prayers are made, and songs are sung. Meanwhile, mission churches in California such as Old Mission San Juan Bautista, built by Spanish missionaries, are aligned to the solstice and built in a way that when light enters the church, it illuminates the entire Church. Today, people gather around the structure to witness the astronomical marvel. In New York, every year, Grammy winner Paul Winter organises a concert to celebrate the solstice since the 1980s. The event occurs at New York’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine and honours cultures from around the world.
Although not celebrated right on the day of, Lohri in India is tied closely to the winter solstice. This is because while the solstice marks the beginning of winter, Lohri celebrates its passing. The folk festival is all about honouring a bountiful harvest, as well as the end of a long winter and the beginning of warmer days. Celebrations include gathering around a bonfire with loved ones and singing and dancing through the night while eating sheaves of roasted corn and sugarcane candy from the harvest. The flames of the bonfire are believed to carry messages to the sun god and symbolise the end of the bitter cold. Food from the harvest is also thrown into the fire as an offering.