13 Fascinating Winter Solstice Traditions Around the World
The shortest day and longest night of the year inspire mystical celebrations, both old and new, in anticipation of the sun’s return. In 2018 in the northern hemisphere, the winter solstice is December 21. Remember, the days just get longer from here!
St. Lucia Day, Scandinavia
Like many days we celebrate, ancient festivals observing the winter solstice merged with newer traditions to create the holiday season as we know it today. In Scandinavia, St. Lucia Day on December 13 (the solstice by the old calendar) marks the start of the Christmas season with a procession of young women in white robes, red sashes, and wreaths of candles on their heads, lighting the way through the darkness of winter. Honoring St. Lucy, this festival incorporated pagan winter solstice celebrations marked by bonfires. Gingersnaps, saffron-flavored buns, and glogg are also traditionally served. Find out the history of your favorite Christmas traditions.
Dong Zhi, China
This thousands-of-years-old festival on December 21, 22, or 23 is celebrated with family gatherings and a big meal, including rice balls called tang yuan. Thought to mark the end of the harvest season, the holiday also has roots in the Chinese concept of yin and yang: After the solstice, the abundance of darkness in winter will begin to be balanced with the light of the sun.
Stonehenge gathering, England
Although no one knows exactly why the ancient circle of Stonehenge was built, there’s no denying it lines up with the movements of the sun. Archaeological research suggests winter solstice festivals happened at Stonehenge—and modern revelers have taken up the tradition, gathering at dawn the day after the longest night (this year, December 22) to witness the magical occurrence of the sun rising through the stones. The best part? It’s free of charge, although parking is limited. Visitors can even walk right up to the stones, an area usually roped off, for this peaceful and sacred celebration. Read about more things you didn’t know about the holiday season.
Shab-e Yalda, Iran
This ancient Persian festival, like many winter solstice holidays, celebrates the end of shorter days and the victory of light over darkness. Meaning “birth,” Yalda is marked by family gatherings, candles (originally, fires lit all night), poetry readings, and a feast to get through the longest night of the year. Nuts and fruits, including watermelon and pomegranates, are traditionally eaten—legend has it that eating the fruits of summer will protect you from illness in winter.
Winter Solstice Lantern Festival, Vancouver
To honor the many cultural traditions that celebrate the winter solstice, Vancouver’s Secret Lantern Society created the city’s Solstice Lantern Festival, now in its 25th year. Participants can attend workshops to create their lantern, and then on the night of the solstice processions march throughout the city, culminating in fire performances. Attendees can also try to find their way through the Labyrinth of Light, a maze of 600 candles that invites visitors to let go of old thoughts and find new possibilities for the coming year. Find out more Christmas traditions to steal from around the world.
The winter solstice in Japan, called Toji, has a few interesting customs associated with it. Traditionally, a winter squash called kabocha is eaten, one of only a few crops that would have been available. A hot bath with yuzu citrus fruits is believed to refresh body and spirit, ward off illness, as well as soothe dry winter skin. And apparently, rodents called capybaras love yuzu baths as well—it’s become popular for Japanese zoos to throw the fruit into the warm waters the animals soak in on the winter solstice.
Santo Tomas Festival, Guatemala
Although the Catholic church now observes the feast of St. Thomas on July 3, in Chichicastenango (Chichi), Guatemala, the festival is still celebrated for a week leading up to the winter solstice of December 21. Why? Likely because it’s a mix of the Catholic ceremony with native Mayan rituals that may have been timed to the solstice. Today, the feast is marked with brightly colored traditional costumes, masks, parades, fireworks, and music. The highlight is the death-defying custom of the “Flying Pole” dance: climbing a 100-foot pole, tying on a rope, and jumping off the top. Yikes! For more on mixing old and new religions, read about why Christmas is on December 25.
Soyal, Hopi Tribe
The indigenous Hopi people of present-day northern Arizona celebrate the winter solstice as part of their religious tradition of kachina (or katsina), which are spirits representing the natural world. In the Soyal solstice ceremony, led by a tribal chief, the sun is welcomed back to its summer path with ritual dances. Gift-giving to children, prayers for the coming year, singing, and storytelling are also part of the festivities. Prayer sticks and kachina dolls are often made in preparation for the celebration.
Burning the Clocks, Brighton, England
Fire, needed to light the dark days of winter, has traditionally been part of winter solstice celebrations. The modern-day Burning of Clocks festival in the seaside town of Brighton took up that notion for its yearly solstice parade, bonfire, and fire show. People wearing costumes representing clocks and the passage of time process with lanterns made of wood and paper to the beach, where the lanterns are burned in a huge bonfire, symbolizing the wishes, hopes, and fears that will be passed into the flames. Find out the most outrageous Christmas light displays of all time.
Newgrange gathering, Ireland
This 5,200-year-old passage tomb and ancient temple are aligned to the winter solstice—a small opening above the entrance fills with light on several sunrises surrounding the solstice, gradually extending throughout the chamber to illuminate it. The dramatic effect lasts for 17 minutes. Although the exact reason why the tomb was created this way isn’t known, it’s speculated to mark the beginning of a new year and the triumph of light over darkness. Today, visitors can apply for a lottery drawing to be inside the temple at the moment of the sunrise; others will gather outside the monument. Did you know ancient Celtic traditions are the real reasons why Christmas colors are green and red?
Illuminations, California’s mission churches
A similar illumination effect has been discovered halfway around the world in more recent (though still old) structures: mission churches in California and Latin America, such as Old Mission San Juan Bautista, built by Spanish missionaries in the late 18th and early 19th centuries to convert Native Americans to Catholicism. At dawn on the winter solstice, a shaft a light appears through a window over the door, illuminating the altar and its sacred objects. The churches appear to be built purposefully to align with the sun’s path, in what could have been an effort to merge the indigenous peoples’ reverence for the solstice with Christian beliefs. Today, people gather at the churches to witness this recently re-discovered phenomenon and to celebrate with Native American as well as Catholic traditions. The history behind bright illuminations of the holiday season is part of surprising Christmas facts you never knew.
Dongji, South Korea
“Little new year” is marked in South Korea with the traditional eating of a red bean porridge called patjuk. Red is considered to be a lucky color, so the dish is meant to keep bad spirits away while embracing good wishes for the coming year. Other Dongji traditions include giving calendars, as Korean kings used to do, and socks. And this is a day Koreans wish for snow: cold weather on the winter solstice is said to bring a bountiful harvest, but warm weather will not.
Montol Festival, Cornwall, England
A reinterpretation of ancient Cornish winter traditions, the 11-year-old winter solstice festival of Montol in the town of Penzance celebrates the culture of England’s westernmost peninsula. Wearing carnival-like costumes, “guisers” process with lanterns, creating a “river of fire” meant to celebrate the return of the sun. In the old custom, guisers (those wearing disguises) would roam the streets putting on skits, songs, and pranks; part of the fun was trying to guess who was who. Today, traditional music, dancing, and performances add to the festive atmosphere. Check out more chilling facts you never knew about the winter solstice.