How do you celebrate the winter solstice festivals? The shortest day and longest night of the year inspire mystical celebrations, both old and new, in anticipation of the sun’s return. In the Northern Hemisphere the winter solstice festivals are celebrated on December 21st and in the Southern Hemisphere they are celebrated on June 21st. Then, the dates simply reverse for the summer solstice.
However, this post is about winter solstice festivals both northern and southern. So, read on to enjoy a taste of the celebration of the longest night of the year around the world.
Burning the Clock • England
The Burning the Clock Festival aptly names this winter solstice parade in England’s funky beach town of Brighton. Thousands of paraders march through town with lanterns made of out of white tissue paper and decorated with hopes and dreams.
The procession ends at the water where the lanterns are tossed into a giant bonfire to represent the passage of time into a new sun. How appropriate and fun this custom is for this time of year!
Dong Zhi • China
This is the Chinese version of the winter solstice festivals and occurs six weeks before the Chinese New Year. Dong Zhi translates as “Winter Arrives” and welcomes the return of longer days with positive energy for the year to come. Moreover, traditionalists believe that this is the day when everyone gets one year older!
In our modern times, this day isn’t an official holiday but that doesn’t stop people from celebrating this time-honored tradition. In Southern China, you’ll find many happy families celebrating with the rice balls knows as “Tang Yuan” which are bright in color and sweet with savory broth. However, in Northern China, they enjoy delicious plain or meat stuffed dumplings for their mid-winter observance.
Inti Raymi • Peru
Peru resides in the Southern Hemisphere so they celebrate the winter solstice in June. Inti Raymi translates as “Sun Festival” and honors Inti, the Sun God. With the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadors, the celebration was banned for centuries however, it saw a revival in the 20th century and is still celebrated by Peruvians today.
The tradition of this festival begins with dancing for three days before the solstice. Then before dawn on the fourth day, they await the sunrise whereupon they bow down before it and offer gold cups of chicha which is an ancient, sacred beer made from corn. They set up mirrors to catch the sun’s rays and direct it to kindle their great ceremonial fire.
Saturnalia • Ancient Rome
The ancient Roman solstice celebration Saturnalia is where many of our Western holiday traditions originated. This Roman celebration was dedicated to Saturn, the God of agriculture and time. This festival is still observed around the world when people dress in their ancient Roman best to honor this tradition.
Originally starting with reverent festivities that took place on one day, that soon expanded into weeklong celebrations from December 17th to December 24th. All pompous social facades faded away during this festival and sometimes masters even served their slaves during this celebration!
Shab-e Yalda • Iran
Iranians celebrate Shab-e Yalda which is the triumph over the darkness by the Sun God Mithra. Shab-e Yalda translates as “Night of Birth” while fires burn to protect each other from the darkness. Another wonderful part of their tradition is to perform charitable acts during this time.
The celebratory feasts consist of nuts, pomegranates, and making wishes. You might find some families listening to readings of the 14th-century Persian poet Hafiz. The world-wide tradition of staying up all night to rejoice in the rising of the sun is also a part of this Iranian tradition.
Shalako • Zuni • New Mexico
Many anthropologists believe that the Zuni tribe have been living in the same area of land for nearly 3,000 to 4,000 years in the Zuni Valley of western New Mexico. So their celebration of the winter solstice is a prime example of how far back this ancient celebration actually goes on Mother Earth. They mark their celebration with a ceremonial dance named “Shalako”. They fast, pray, and observe the sunrise and sunset for many days before the solstice.
Zuni Chalako Dance C. 1898
When the time comes, the Pekwin or “Sun Priest” gives out a long mournful call to announce the moment of the “Etiwanda” or the “Rebirth of the Sun”. Then it is a time for rejoicing and the dances start with 12 kachina clowns in painted masks. They all dance around with the “Shalako” which is a 12-foot-tall effigy with a bird head who are messengers from the Gods. Then, after four days of dancing, they select new dancers for the next year to begin the new yearly cycle.
Soyal • Hopi • Arizona
The Hopi of northern Arizona are descendants of the ancient Anasazi whose history is traced to 200 B.C. To start their celebration of Soyal, their Sun Chief announces the setting sun on winter solstice day. This is followed by an all-night ceremony that includes fires, dances, and gifts.
In the traditional sense, they believe that their honored observation of the sun affects the abundance of their crops and blesses other Hopi ceremonies and rituals during the coming year.
St. Lucia’s Day • Scandinavia
St. Lucia is an early Christian martyr for which many show honor during the solstice. However, the Julian Calendar gives December 13th as the shortest day of the year. And, it is also the day when the Romans killed Lucia as she brought food to persecuted Christians in Rome.
To commemorate St. Lucia Day, ladies in Scandinavia wear white dresses with red sashes and wreaths of candles on their heads. This is to honor the memory of Lucia when she wore candles on her head to light her way to take food to the Christians in need.
Interestingly, this holiday is a combination of Norse traditions. This came about with the conversions of many Norsemen to Christianity around 1000 A.D. St. Lucia day is a symbol of light and the traditions include lighting fires to ward off spirits during what is the longest, darkest night of the year.
Toji • Japan
Toji is how Japan celebrates the winter solstice festivals. It is a traditional observance of the new year along with fervent wishes of health and good luck. This is a sacred time of year for farmers because they welcome the return of the sun that nurtures and grows their crops in the new year. Bonfires light up to pay homage to the sun and pray for its return. One of the largest bonfires burns on Mount Fuji on December 22nd.
One of the loveliest traditions of the Japanese celebration is to take warm baths scented with yuzu. The belief about this citrus fruit is that wards off colds and brings good health. Many Japanese people also eat kabocha squash because they believe that it brings them good luck.
Winter Solstice • Blue Mountains • Australia
Hands Heart & Feet drummers and dancers performing on the Carrington Driveway, at the Carrington Hotel in Katoomba, Blue Mountains, Australia for the Winter Solstice, 2018.
Wishes for a Season of Joy
I offer you my wishes for a joyous season of holiday cheer as you celebrate your winter celebrations this year. Wherever you live or choose to bring in the new year, I send the brightest blessings to you and yours. May your year be full of the celebration of each new day of life on Mother Earth.