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Of December’s many holidays, one that sometimes gets missed is the winter solstice, which in 2021 falls on December 21. In the Northern Hemisphere, the solstice is the shortest day of the year, and the longest night. As the Earth is tilted away from the sun, our star tracks its lowest path across the sky, and throughout the night, cultures around the world celebrate the coming of longer days and better weather — by eating hearty foods, lighting fires, and performing ancient rituals. Here are nine fascinating celebrations that mark this astronomical occasion.
Dongzhi festival (which translates literally to “winter’s arrival”) is an ancient tradition, believed to date as far back as the Han Dynasty (206 BCE to 220 CE) as a way to mark the end of the harvest. Today, families who may live thousands of miles apart use the occasion to come together and enjoy each other’s company. It is believed that this time of year carries an imbalance of yin (cool and dark) and yang (warm and light) energies. Foods considered high in yang energy, such as ginger and garlic, are eaten in abundance.
However, what’s for dinner differs depending on which part of China you’re in. In the colder north, hot and fatty jiaozi dumplings are on the menu. In the southern part of the country and Taiwan, however, tangyuan dumplings are preferred: cute and colorful balls of glutinous rice symbolizing unity and completeness, which can be devoured in a hot savory broth or sticky, sweet syrup.
Persian culture is home to some of the world’s oldest rituals, and at approximately 5,000 years old, Shab-e-Yalda is no exception. Celebrated on the longest night of the year, Yalda Night takes place on the last day of the solar month Azar. The month is typically associated with fire, and the triumph of light over darkness, because it coincides with the birth of the light god, Mithra.
To symbolize this triumph, Iranian families around the world on Yalda Night fill their homes with candles (which can burn until the break of the following day), read classical Farsi poetry, and play musical instruments until the early hours. Getting through the longest night of the year requires both food and warmth, so plenty of tasty snacks are eaten — pomegranates, candy, and watermelon are some of the most common, but the highlight is ajil, a vibrant and punchy Persian trail mix.
Burning the Clocks (England)
The seaside city of Brighton, England, has introduced a new tradition to the winter solstice celebrations called Burning the Clocks. Since 1994, the city’s famously quirky residents have paraded on the night of the solstice from the city center to the town’s pebble beach, brandishing homemade paper and willow lanterns. The event’s organizer, Same Sky, encourages people to make them in all shapes and sizes — from the festival’s namesake clocks to top-hat wearing ghouls and stars embellished with the carrier’s name.
Once the lanterns reach the beach, they are put to the flames. The resulting bonfire warms the thousands in attendance, and a breathtaking fireworks display illuminates the black ocean on winter’s longest night. The event is secular, and encourages reflection on the past, the present, and the future. This year’s theme is “all animals,” and after taking a break in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the festival looks set to come back with a bang.
Winter Solstice Celebration at St. John The Divine (New York City)
The city that never sleeps has its own, New York way of marking the winter solstice. On this special night, the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine throws open its doors for a concert led by legendary (and aptly named) saxophonist Paul Winter. The event has been held every year since 1980, when the Dean of the Cathedral asked Winter to be his artist-in-residence. The solstice was chosen as the date for the special event, because it’s a universal milestone (at least, for those in the Northern Hemisphere, while it’s summer for those in the Southern Hemisphere).
The event emphasizes ecology and the renewal of the planet, rooted in ancient optimism about the coming of spring. World music is a crucial part of the program: This year’s livestream will feature a range of performers, from an Irish theologian to a Malian singer. After dark, as the sound of instruments that have travelled from across the globe reverberate through the Gothic arches of the unfinished building, the atmosphere becomes truly magical.
Japan’s Tōji festival has its roots in the Chinese Dongzhi tradition, but the island nation couldn’t mark this day any differently. Many shrines and temples have their own ways of celebrating the solstice; for example, in Tokyo, there’s a custom of buying mamori (charms) to ward off the darkness.
The weather can get chilly at this time of year, so many Japanese families head to their local onsen (natural hot springs) to warm up with their loved ones and practice a ritual known as the yuzuyu, in which whole yuzu citrus fruits are added into the hot water. Since yuzus are high in vitamins, allowing them to slowly diffuse their oils in the water is said to prevent colds, soothe aching winter muscles, and promote good health for the upcoming year. Eating yuzu fruits is also encouraged, as is the consumption of foods with a nasal “n” sound in their name, because they are believed to be highly auspicious.
Santo Tomas Day (Guatemala)
The mountain city of Chichicastenango, Guatemala, celebrates its patron saint with a blend of Catholic Spanish and ancient Kʼiche Maya traditions. The festivities begin on December 13, with parades, traditional costumed dances, and fireworks taking center stage. However, on the saint’s day itself — December 21 — citizens gather outside the Iglesia de Santo Tomas for a startling show.
A pole almost 100 feet high dominates the plaza, as the intoxicating sound of marimba music fills the air. Slowly, pairs of climbers ascend the pole, tying ropes to their waists as they reach higher and higher. Once at the top, they leap off, and the ropes unravel as they rocket towards the ground, saving them from harm at the very last moment. This is the dance of the palo valador (flying pole), and it’s just as elegant and thrilling to watch as you might imagine.
The Zuni and Hopi peoples of the southwestern U.S. celebrate the solstice with Soyal, a festival that welcomes the sun back onto its summer trajectory. The tribes believe that the sun needs to be enticed back from a long winter slumber, so ritual purifications take place. Sixteen days before the Solstice, a Hopi elder enters the pueblo mimicking a person who has woken from a deep sleep, and then begins to dance and sing very quietly.
Underground sacred spaces known as kivas are ceremonially opened at the start of Soyal. Inside the kiva, prayer sticks called pahos are made, which are used to bless the community, their animals, and homes. The opening of the kivas marks the beginning of Kachina season, during which benevolent spirits representing natural forces are believed to appear. Kachina dolls are given to children, so they can learn about the role these spirits play in their culture.
Newgrange Gathering (Ireland)
This 5,200-year-old Neolithic passage tomb in Ireland is just as mysterious as Stonehenge in England, and just like Stonehenge, its construction plays clever tricks around the time of the solstice. Just above the entrance is an opening known as a roof-box, which, for a few days each December, allows a beam of light to flood into the dark chamber at dawn.
Humanity has always searched for ways to witness light triumph over darkness, and that tradition continues today at Newgrange. The solstice gathering in the chamber is so popular that an annual lottery is the only way to obtain tickets to witness the 17-minute light show. Due to quirks of the Irish weather, the sun is often masked by clouds, but those huddled in the darkness will agree that waiting together at such a mystical place for the longest night of the year to end is an incredibly special feeling. (Note: Unfortunately, the 2021 event has been cancelled due to the pandemic.)
St. Lucia’s Day (Scandinavia)
In Sweden, Norway, and much of Scandinavia, St. Lucia’s Day on December 13 marks the start of Christmas time, but it also has a strong connection with the winter solstice. Under the old Julian calendar previously used in Europe, December 13 was the shortest day of the year, and the event celebrates light during the long, dark winter. The saint’s day has stayed the same since moving to the Gregorian calendar, and so have the religious traditions that take place.
Stop into any Scandinavian church, and you’ll see women wearing white robes, with a red ribbon around their waists. This red ribbon symbolizes the martyrdom of St. Lucia, a young Italian girl who was killed for bringing food to persecuted Christians in the fourth century CE. It’s said she placed candles on her head to free up her hands to carry the life-giving food, so girls in Scandinavia chosen to represent St. Lucia balance candles atop their heads, giving out saffron buns known as lussekatter. Boys take part in the procession too, singing carols about the return of light, and wearing wizard-like conical hats.