Top winter solstice celebrations in the northern hemisphere
Since ancient times, humankind has observed seasonal changes in the sky and paid homage, if not in the grandiose form of an actual temple or other solid structure, then in the form of a celebration of some kind.
The December solstice, often misleadingly called just the ‘winter’ solstice, is a phenomenon which marks the point of midwinter in the northern hemisphere (and conversely, midsummer in the southern hemisphere). It occurs around the 21st December (it can vary slightly) on the longest night of the year – or of course, the longest day if you’re in Australia or Patagonia, for example!
In simple terms, we experience the solstices because the Earth is tipped at an angle from the plane of its orbit around the sun. In the northern hemisphere, the December solstice happens when the North Pole is tilted farthest from the Sun. But here, I’m going to focus on solstice celebrations and not the celestial mechanics!
Ancient solstice festivities
In Roman times, several festivals focussed on the sun, and the renewal of light – Saturnalia, for example, spanned several days, including the December solstice, and Dies Natalis Solis Invicti celebrated the ‘birthday of the unconquerable sun’.
Over the centuries, many solstice traditions have become entwined with the Christian celebration of Christmas, either because of the proximity of the dates or because of the association between light and birth, the idea (loosely) being that the longest night comes to an end with the birth of Jesus, our guiding light. It’s probably a bit of both.
It’s almost impossible to fully unpick the web of history and identify the origin of each custom with certainty, but in today’s world, many cultures continue to observe some of these traditions. Here’s a selection of some the major winter solstice celebrations in the northern hemisphere.
Winter solstice in the United Kingdom
Each year, from all over the UK and beyond, thousands of people descend upon Stonehenge (in Wiltshire), the most famous stone circle in the world, to see in the morning of the new cosmic year at the winter solstice. As the dawn sun rises, it casts a beam directly connecting the altar stone, the slaughter stone and the heel stone. If you can see it, that is. More often than not, clouds obscure the sun’s rays and the crowds must console themselves with lots of daft merriment and the joy of knowing that the longest night of the year is behind them for now.
In Ireland, the ancient Neolithic passage tomb at Newgrange, County Meath, welcomes a select few (chosen by a lottery system) to observe the illumination of its main chamber as the sun rises and aligns with the roof-box opening above the chamber. This year, for the first time, cameras will live-stream the event across the world (assuming clear skies). Similarly, on mainland Orkney in Scotland, the rear wall of the Maeshowe burial chamber becomes illuminated during sunrise at the winter solstice.
Organised by community arts charity Same Sky, Brighton’s annual Burning the Clocks celebrations unite the city to mark the northern hemisphere’s passage through the longest night. The lantern-laden parade culminates in a symbolic blazing bonfire on Brighton beach.
The Montol Festival, held in Penzance, Cornwall is a uniquely Cornish event held each year to honour the heritage of the Cornish Christmas and Midwinter. It’s just a few years old as an event, but many of the traditions it celebrates are much older – the quirkily delightful practice of guise dancing for example, goes back to the medieval times, where the original purpose was to disguise yourself with masks and costumes, allowing you to join in the revelry or even beg for money, without the fear of being identified.
Winter festivities in mainland Europe
In pagan times, for many parts of Northern Europe and its Germanic peoples, the winter solstice was an important event, and today, many countries are clawing some of these customs back from Christmas and reintroducing them into the modern world. In pre-Christian Scandinavia, the December solstice marked the onset of the Feast of Juul, a 12-day midwinter festival where fires were lit to represent the life-giving properties of the returning sun and to provide literal and symbolic protection from the dark and cold.
You’ll recognise the word ‘Juul’ as very similar to ‘Yule’, from which the expression Yuletide, another term for Christmas, is derived. One of the constants throughout most European winter celebrations through the ages, is the juul/yule wooden log. Today, the burning of a wooden log continues to symbolise the purging of the old year, of any bad luck or misfortune of the previous 12 months, as it did from the very beginning of known folklore.
While Latvia’s modern Ziemassvētki (Christmas, or more literally, winter festival/holiday) celebrations begin on Christmas Eve, it is thought that the older Ziemas Saulgrieži (Winter Solstice) festival used to be a 3-day event starting on the winter solstice itself.
Today, these older customs have been revived in the form of the Kekatas Winter Solstice Masquerade. In the Latvian capital of Riga, masked revellers parade through the streets to ward off evil spirits away while dragging a log around town. The log absorbs the problems of the past year, before being burned as a purge.
In the town of Tiszaalpár, in Hungary, the Hungarian-Turan Foundation Zsolt András Bíró have started reintroducing old customs by celebrating Karacsun (winter solstice) in a ceremony of singing, falconry, summoning of ancestors and, of course, bonfire lighting.
In pre-Christian Poland, the winter solstice (or Koljada – also the name of the Slavic Goddess of Winter) was a time for forgiveness and sharing food. In the midst of the processions, it was common to feature a child, riding on a horse and usually carrying a spinning symbol of the Sun, representing the lengthening days ahead.
Many towns across Poland, and indeed other parts of Slavic Europe still enjoy these festivities, although they are more closely aligned with the story of the nativity than the original pagan appreciation of mother nature. That symbol of our Sun, for example, is now a much more distant star, in keeping with the Star of Bethlehem, perhaps.
Want to know if you will have a good harvest next year? The more stars you can count in the sky on the solstice night, the better your crops will be! Letthejourneybegin.eu Ziemassvētki
Further east and the celebrations of Yalda, Chaomos and Dongzhi
Yalda Night (or Shab e Chelleh) in Iran is traditionally a family vigil where Iranians gather with their loved ones to eat, drink, tell stories, read poetry and pass the long night together with love and joy. Families may keep fires burning through the night to protect against dark forces. Pomegranates and watermelons are essential food staples for Yalda Night, as their vivid colours denote the spark of life. Originating from the Zoroastrian faith, the Yalda Night custom is also observed by other countries such as Afghanistan (chilla), Tajikistan, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.
At Egypt‘s ancient sprawling temple of Karnak, you can witness the rising of the winter solstice sun at the Precinct of Amin-Ra, the only part that is currently open to the public. This video demonstrates the experience.
In north-western Pakistan, close to the Afghan border, the tribal folk of the Kalash Kafir people celebrate the solstice with a festival called Chaomos. It lasts for at least seven days and includes various rights of passage for younger people, as well as purifying ritual baths, singing, chanting and dancing, bonfires and the obligatory feasts.
In China and other parts of east Asia, the winter solstice holiday is closely tied to the philosophy of yin and yang, and is celebrated during the Dongzhi festival, which welcomes the return of the sun and an increase in positive energy or yang, thus restoring balance and harmony.
As with all these rituals, food plays a crucial part, but what you eat depends on which region you come from. In southern China, families bond over the preparation tang yuan, balls of brightly-coloured glutinous rice, cooked in either a sweet or savoury broth, which symbolise wholeness and unity. In northern China, the culinary choice is crescent-shaped dumplings, often filled with tasty and warming meat and vegetables. It’s a cultural bone of contention as to which region’s chosen dish is the best!
In Japan, the winter solstice (or Tōji) is a time to cleanse yourself of the old, and prepare for the new, usually by way of a yuzu bath. Yuzu is a small, winter citrus fruit with cleansing properties, and it can either be placed whole or sliced into a hot bath. The delicious aroma will boost your mood and your skin will be pampered by the essential oils. You’ll find many public hot baths or springs will hold public yuzu events on the day of the winter solstice. This is one of the most unique customs among winter solstice tradtions.
But if it’s eating you want to know about, the most popular food to eat at this time is kabocha, or winter squash, which is full of vitamin A and will help ward off ill health during the winter.
Winter solstice parades and events in the Americas
Vancouver in Canada is already one of my favourite cities, with many highlights. Add to those the Annual Winter Solstice Lantern Festival, organised by the intriguingly-named Secret Lantern Society and you have yet another reason to visit and enjoy the city, this time in its magnificent wintry incarnation. The festival takes place across several Vancouver neighbourhoods, including the famous Granville Island. Here, as the website describes, the ‘dance of the sun and earth’ is celebrated with ‘a glowing constellation of lanterns’, processions, music, art workshops, dancing and fire performances.
But vibrant Vancouver isn’t the only city in Canada to celebrate this pivotal point in the cosmic calendar. Across to the east, in Toronto, Ontario, the Kensington Market Winter Solstice Parade sees the local community, with home-made lanterns, lining the route from Market Square to Alexandra Park, as the procession entertains with dancers on stilts, giant puppets and a fire-breathing finale.
The Zuni, a Native American Pueblo people from New Mexico, USA, commemorate the winter solstice with a ceremonial dance, the Sha’lak’o, takes place. It’s a dance of transition, which salutes the outgoing year and asks for blessings for the year to come. In the dance, a Zuni boy, painted in the Zuni colours of the sun (black with red, yellow, white and blue circles) carries a burning torch and wears a bag of seeds over his shoulder, representing the Fire God. Others join him, all in intricate masks, and they cross the Zuni River, dancing in intricate patterns for four days.
In the Hopi Reservation in Arizona, USA, many of the rituals of the Hopi winter solstice festival, the Soyal, take place in underground chambers called kivas. Here, tribesfolk dress up as the spirits of their ancestors, Prayer sticks (paphos) are made in advance, to bestow blessings on their homes and family, to purify the community, and to summon the sun back from its winter rest.
On the surface, Guatemala’s annual Fiesta de Santo Tomas is a celebration of the local Christian patron, Saint Thomas. But in the highland village of Chichicastenango, K’iche’ Mayans celebrate the festival by honouring their ancient sun god in a hair-raising ritual called the polo voladore (flying pole) dance.
Amongst much noise and revelry, a week-long party of parades and fireworks culminates in three costumed men climbing up an enormously long pole, tied by their ankles with some rope. Two of the men then hurl themselves off as the third plays music. If there are any health & safety guidelines, I’m not aware of them, but on the plus side, if the men land on their feet, the sun god will be pleased and grant longer days.
For me, it’s a great shame the December solstice gets lost in the run-up to Christmas – it’s a significant point in our cycle through the shifting seasons and I’d love to see some proper solstice celebrations resurface into the mainstream, and not just reserved for the New Age fringes. But then again, if you look at the common factors of these age-old customs – the feasting, candles, family gatherings, singing and dancing, decorating your home with evergreens, wishing for health and happiness – I suppose it’s not that different after all.
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Have I missed any notable celebrations? You tell me! I couldn’t find anything for northern Africa, for example.
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