If you’re someone who sees “Winter Solstice” on their calendar every year and always means to look it up, but never actually gets around to it, and then forgets again until the following year, you’ve come to the right place. If you’re unfamiliar (or only vaguely familiar with its history and connection to Christmas) with the Winter Solstice, it refers to the astronomical moment when the sun reaches the Tropic of Capricorn. It is also the shortest day of the year (meaning, the fewest hours/minutes of daylight) and the first day of winter. For people in the Northern Hemisphere, this year’s Winter Solstice takes place on Monday, December 21, 2020, at 5:02 a.m. EST.
The word “solstice” comes from the Latin words sol (sun) and sistere (to stand still) because, on this day, it looks like the angle between the sun’s rays and the plane of the Earth’s equator stands still. For those who didn’t take Astronomy 101, this means that on the Winter Solstice, the sun rises in the lowest part of the sky, and then once it hits noon, it looks like it stays in the same spot for the days right before and after this astronomical occasion.
Another important part of the Winter Solstice is that once it’s over, the days gradually start getting longer again. For this reason, different cultures around the world saw it as a type of “rebirth,” and developed a variety of ceremonies and other activities around it. In fact, the pagan commemoration of Winter Solstice (also called “Yule”) is one of the oldest celebrations in the world. Here’s what you need to know about how pagans marked the shortest day of the year, and other Winter Solstice rituals and traditions.
- Ancient Pagans
With ancient societies so focused on the comings and goings of the sun, it makes sense that they’d celebrate the point when days started getting longer again. And if some of the Winter Solstice pagan customs and words (like yule, mistletoe, or decorating your home with greenery) sound familiar, it’s because they were later incorporated into what are now considered Christmas traditions.
- Dongzhi Winter Solstice Festival
This ancient Chinese Winter Solstice celebration involves traditions like worshipping the Heaven and ancestors, counting Nines of Winter, and eating glutinous rice and dumplings.
Some 400 years before the ancient Egyptians built the pyramids, people in Ireland built Newgrange, a passage tomb designed so that when the sun rises on the day of the Winter Solstice, the chamber is flooded with sunlight.
The Indigenous Hopi people of northern Arizona marked the Winter Solstice with a celebration called Soyal. It involved rituals incorporating purification, dancing, gift-giving, and making prayer sticks.
Not all Winter Solstice customs are ancient, including the Midwinter celebrations in Antarctica. On this day, scientists and other residents enjoy special meals, films, and handmade gifts.
Also known as “Shab-e Yalda,” this is the ancient Persian Winter Solstice celebration, which still takes place in modern-day Iran. Traditions include eating nuts and pomegranates, and staying up all night in order to see the sunrise.
- St. Lucia Day
While the modern Scandinavian holiday marking the beginning of the Christmas season honors St. Lucy, many of the traditions associated with the day — including bonfires, gingersnaps, saffron-flavored buns, and glogg — were adapted from local pagan Winter Solstice traditions.
Although Newgrange predates the first phase of Stonehenge by 1000 years, it’s still a pretty ancient Winter Solstice celebration, involving the sun rising through the monument’s iconic stones.
- Lantern Festival
Each year, Vancouver’s Secret Lantern Society puts on a Winter Solstice celebration in the form of a Lantern Festival. Those participating make their own lantern, take part in a procession, then watch some fire performances.
- Santo Tomas Festival
Each year, Catholics in Chichicastenango (Chichi), Guatemala take part in a weeklong celebration leading up to the Winter Solstice. Incorporating both Mayan and Christian traditions, the festivities include brightly colored clothing, masks, parades, fireworks, and music.
- Burning the Clocks
In the days before mechanical clocks, people (roughly) kept the time by observing the sun and moon and were only able to during evening hours with the help of fire. This all comes together in Brighton, England’s annual Burning the Clocks festival marking the Winter Solstice, where people dress up like clocks and burn lanterns made of wood or paper.
- Illuminations in California
Similar to Newgrange, some of the churches built in California by Spanish missionaries in the late 18th and early 19th centuries were also designed so that the sun illuminates the altar. It was thought to be an attempt to combine Indigenous and Catholic traditions as a way of appealing to (and converting) Indigenous people in an area.
- Montol Festival
Another one from England, the Montol Festival is a modern version of ancient Cornish winter traditions, held during the Winter Solstice. Rituals include traditional costumes, music, dancing, and performances.
In Japan, the Winter Solstice celebration is known as Toji, and features traditions like eating a winter squash called kabocha and taking a hot bath with yuzu citrus fruits.
Each year, the Kalasha or Kalash Kafir people of northern Pakistan celebrate the Winter Solstice with a festival called Chaomos. The weeklong celebration includes traditions like ritual baths, singing and chanting, a torchlight procession, dancing, and bonfires.
This ancient Roman festival is celebrated similarly to Christmas. It happens around the winter solstice and celebrates the end of the plating season. This festival is filled with feasts and gift-giving. During this time, people are encouraged to show generosity and kindness. It is a weeklong celebration and even courthouses and schools are closed.
This Iranian holiday happens on the longest night of the year and is meant to celebrate the history of Mithra, a sun God’s triumph over darkness. Shab-e Yalda translates to “Night of Birth”. People partake by burning fires and doing good deeds, which are meant to ward away evil spirits. Yummy foods are also included like nuts and pomegranates. It’s a night of poetry readings and some stay up all night, cautious of intruding evil spirits and wait for the morning.
In South Korea, they celebrate the “Little new year.” During this time, everyone eats red bean porridge called patjuk. In Korea red is a lucky color and the dish is believed to ward off bad spirits and pull in good wishes for the new year. People usually wish for snow and a great harvest. Calendars are a common gift because Korean kings used to give them away in the past. Socks are also a traditional gift.
Celebration of the African Goddess, Mawu
Mawu is a West African creation goddess. The moon is believed to be her eyes and it’s what she uses to look into people’s souls. The holiday is about rest and taking a break. Mawu is in charge of writing destinies which, she gives to her son Legba to deliver to the world. Her messages are usually received through nature, the weather, strangers, or dreams. She is responsible for bringing cooler weather to the continent.