ecember 21 is the shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, and for centuries, the event has been marked by celebrations around the world. The significance of the winter solstice centers on the “return” of the Sun, with many cultures welcoming the lighter days to come with rituals and festivals. Let’s take a look at some ancient traditions surrounding this astronomical phenomenon that are still being honored today.
One of the most well-known focal points for the winter solstice is the prehistoric monument Stonehenge. Thousands travel to Stonehenge (built in 3,000 to 2,000 BC) to watch the sun rise above the ancient stones every year Druid and pagan communities come out to celebrate the event with singing and costumes—just like their ancestors did.
During the Viking Era in the Nordic regions, the winter solstice was celebrated with the Feast of Juul (Yule) where people would light fires to symbolize the heat and light of the returning sun. This ritual has been carried over to the present-day custom of lighting a Yule log at Christmas.
China’s winter solstice is known as the Dongzhi Festival, and it’s traced back to the yin and yang philosophy of balance and harmony. People in southern China celebrate Dongzhi by eating brightly colored rice balls, which symbolize reunion and unity.
While in the colder region of northern China, people celebrate the festival by eating steamed dumplings. Because of their crescent shape, dumplings are often described as “little ears” and Chinese legend says that your ears will be frozen if you don’t have dumplings on the winter solstice.
The Zuni and the Hopi tribes welcome the sun back from its winter slumber with a ritual called Soyal. During the celebration, prayer sticks, called pahos, are used to bless homes, animals and plants.
Iranians around the world celebrate the renewal of the sun with a festival called Yalda Night. Tradition calls for family members to get together (most often in the house of the eldest member) and stay awake all night reciting poetry, playing music, and telling stories. Oddly enough, one of the most important foods to be shared during the winter solstice is a summer fruit: watermelon. Iranians believe those who begin winter by eating it will not get sick during the cold, harsh months.
Tōji is the Japanese name for the winter solstice, and there are two famous customs still honored today. One involves eating kabocha, a winter squash. Kabocha is thought to have special benefits because it’s a nutrient-rich vegetable that’s available during the cold winter months. The other tradition is taking a yuzu (citrus) bath. Floating yuzu fruit in bathwater adds a citrus aroma to the water. The Japanese consider this good luck and a way to ward off illness in the coming year.
Throughout history, celebrating the solstice has mainly been a way to honor nature and renew our connection with each other. How will you celebrate the upcoming solstice? Let us know below.