Ever since people first noticed the changing length of the days, the longest night of the year has been a special time marked by celebration. Ancient cultures around the world, from Rome to China to the Americas, developed customs and rituals designed to welcome the return of the sun and the beginning of the march towards summer’s light and warmth. Some are still celebrated today, while many of the traditions we now associate with such winter holidays as Hanukkah and Christmas can be traced back to these ancient solstice celebrations. In the Northern Hemisphere, the winter solstice falls on December 21 or 22, while the longest night of the year in the Southern Hemisphere is June 20 or 21.
Western culture owes many of the traditional midwinter celebrations—including those of Christmas—to Saturnalia, an ancient Roman solstice celebration dedicated to the Saturn, the god of agriculture and time. Though it started out as a one-day celebration earlier in December, this pagan festival later expanded into a riotous weeklong party stretching from December 17 to 24. During this jolliest and most popular of Roman festivals, social norms fell away as everyone indulged in gambling, drinking, feasting and giving gifts. Even slaves got to partake in the festivities; they did not work, and some masters turned the tables and served their slaves.
St. Lucia’s Day
This traditional festival of lights in Scandinavia honors St. Lucia, one of the earliest Christian martyrs, but was incorporated with earlier Norse solstice traditions after many Norsemen converted to Christianity around 1000 A.D. According to the old Julian Calendar, December 13 (the date that is traditionally given as the day in 304 A.D. when the Romans killed Lucia for bringing food to persecuted Christians hiding in Rome) was also the shortest day of the year. As a symbol of light, Lucia and her feast day blended naturally with solstice traditions such as lighting fires to scare away spirits during the longest, darkest night of the year. On St. Lucia’s day, girls in Scandinavia wear white dresses with red sashes and wreaths of candles on their heads, as an homage to the candles Lucia wore on her head to light her way as she carried the forbidden food in her arms.
The Chinese celebration of the winter solstice, Dong Zhi (which means “Winter Arrives”) welcomes the return of longer days and the corresponding increase in positive energy in the year to come. Occurring only six weeks before the Chinese New Year, the festival has its own significance for many people, and is believed to be the day when everyone gets one year older. The celebration may have begun as a harvest festival, when farmers and fisherman took time off to celebrate with their families. Today, it isn’t an official holiday, but remains an occasion for families to join together to celebrate the year that has passed and share good wishes for the year to come. The most traditional food for this celebration in southern China is the glutinous rice balls known as tang yuan, often brightly colored and cooked in sweet or savory broth. Northern Chinese enjoy plain or meat-stuffed dumplings, a particularly warming and nourishing food for a midwinter celebration.
On the longest night of the year, Iranians all over the world celebrate the triumph of Mithra, the Sun God, over darkness in the ancient festival of Shab-e Yalda (which translates to “Night of Birth”). According to tradition, people gather together on the longest night of year to protect each other from evil, burning fires to light their way through the darkness and performing charitable acts. Friends and family join in making wishes, feasting on nuts, pomegranates and other festive foods and reading poetry, especially the work of the 14th-century Persian poet Hafiz. Some stay awake all night to rejoice in the moment when the sun rises, banishing evil and announcing the arrival of goodness.
In Peru, like the rest of the Southern Hemisphere, the winter solstice is celebrated in June. The Inti Raymi (Quechua for “sun festival”), which takes place on the solstice, is dedicated to honoring Inti, the sun god. Before the Spanish conquest, the Incas fasted for three days before the solstice. Before dawn on the fourth day, they went to a ceremonial plaza and waited for the sunrise. When it appeared, they crouched down before it, offering golden cups of chicha (a sacred beer made from fermented corn). Animals—including llamas—were sacrificed during the ceremony, and the Incas used a mirror to focus the sun’s rays and kindle a fire. After the conquest, the Spaniards banned the Inti Raymi holiday, but it was revived in the 20th century (with mock sacrifices) and continues today.
Shalako – Zuni Indians
For the Zuni, one of the Native American Pueblo peoples in western New Mexico, the winter solstice signifies the beginning of the year, and is marked with a ceremonial dance called Shalako. After fasting, prayer and observing the rising and setting of the sun for several days before the solstice, the Pekwin, or “Sun Priest” traditionally announces the exact moment of itiwanna, the rebirth of the sun, with a long, mournful call. With that signal, the rejoicing and dancing begin, as 12 kachina clowns in elaborate masks dance along with the Shalako themselves—12-foot-high effigies with bird heads, seen as messengers from the gods. After four days of dancing, new dancers are chosen for the following year, and the yearly cycle begins again.
Like the Zuni, the Hopi of northern Arizona are believed to be among the descendants of the mysterious Anasazi people, ancient Native Americans who flourished beginning in 200 B.C. (As the Anasazi left no written records, we can only speculate about their winter solstice rites, but the placement of stones and structures in their ruins, such as New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon, indicate they certainly took a keen interest in the sun’s movement.) In the Hopi solstice celebration of Soyal, the Sun Chief takes on the duties of the Zuni Pekwin, announcing the setting of the sun on the solstice. An all-night ceremony then begins, including kindling fires, dancing and sometimes gift-giving. Traditionally, the Hopi sun-watcher was not only important to the winter solstice tradition, as his observation of the sun also governed the planting of crops and the observance of Hopi ceremonies and rituals all year long.
In Japan, the winter solstice is less a festival than a traditional practice centered around starting the new year with health and good luck. It’s a particularly sacred time of the year for farmers, who welcome the return of a sun that will nurture their crops after the long, cold winter. People light bonfires to encourage the sun’s return; huge bonfires burn on Mount Fuji each December 22. A widespread practice during the winter solstice is to take warm baths scented with yuzu, a citrus fruit, which is said to ward off colds and foster good health. Many public baths and hot springs throw yuzu in the water during the winter solstice. Many Japanese people also eat kabocha squash—known in the United States as Japanese pumpkin—on the solstice, as it is thought to bring luck.