The winter solstice is the day of the year with the fewest hours of daylight, and it marks the start of astronomical winter. After the winter solstice, days start becoming longer and nights shorter as spring approaches.
Humans may have observed the winter solstice as early as Neolithic period—the last part of the Stone Age, beginning about 10,200 BC.
Neolithic monuments, such as Newgrange in Ireland and Maeshowe in Scotland, are aligned with sunrise on the winter solstice. Some archaeologists have theorized that these tomb-like structures served a religious purpose in which Stone Age people held rituals to capture the sun on the year’s shortest day.
Stonehenge, which is oriented toward the winter solstice sunset, may also have been a place of December rituals for Stone Age people.
Ancient Solstice Celebrations
Roman Holidays: Ancient Romans held several celebrations around the time of the winter solstice. Saturnalia, a holiday in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture, was a weeklong celebration in the days leading up to the winter solstice.
Saturnalia was a hedonistic time, when food and drink were plentiful and the normal Roman social order was turned upside down. For a week, slaves would become masters. Peasants were in command of the city. Business and schools were closed so that everyone could join in the fun.
Also around the time of the winter solstice, Romans observed Juvenalia, a feast honoring the children of Rome.
In addition, members of the upper classes often celebrated the birthday of Mithra, on December 25. Mithra was an ancient Persian god of light. It was believed that Mithra, an infant god, was born of a rock. For some Romans, Mithra’s birthday was the most sacred day of the year. In the later Roman Empire, Mithra blended with Sol Invictus, god of the “unconquered sun.”
Some theorists believe the early Roman Catholic Church may have chosen the same date for Christmas in order to supplant pagan rituals, though many Christians scholars dispute this.
Yule: The ancient Norsemen of Scandinavia celebrated Yule from the winter solstice through January.
In recognition of the return of the sun, fathers and sons would bring home large logs, which became known as Yule logs. They would set one end of these logs on fire. The people would feast until the log burned out, which could take as many as 12 days.
The Norse believed that each spark from the fire represented a new piglet or calf that would be born during the coming year.
Inti Raymi: The Inca Empire payed homage to the sun god Inti at a winter solstice celebration called Inti Raymi (Quechua for “sun festival”). In Peru, like the rest of the Southern Hemisphere, the winter solstice takes place in June.
The Incas fasted for three days before the solstice. Before dawn on the day of solstice, 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 Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire in the 1500s, the Spaniards banned the Inti Raymi holiday. It was revived in the 20th century (with mock sacrifices) and continues today.
Winter Solstice Traditions
St. Lucia’s Day: This traditional festival of lights in Scandinavia honors St. Lucia, one of the earliest Christian martyrs. It was incorporated with earlier Norse solstice traditions after many Norsemen converted to Christianity around 1000 A.D.
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 visited imprisoned Christians, carrying forbidden food in her arms.
Dong Zhi: 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.
The celebration may have begun as a harvest festival, when farmers and fisherman took time off to celebrate with their families. Today, it 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.
Toji: In Japan, the winter solstice is less a festival than a traditional practice centered on 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 also thought to bring luck.
Shab-e Yalda: “Yalda night” is an Iranian festival celebrating the longest and darkest night of the year. The celebration springs out of ancient Zoroastrian traditions and customs intended to protect people from evil spirits during the long night.
On Shab-e Yalda, (which translates to “Night of Birth”), Iranians all over the world celebrate the triumph of the sun god Mithra over darkness. According to tradition, people gather together to protect each other from evil, burn fires to light their way through the darkness, and perform charitable acts.
Friends and family join in making wishes, feasting on nuts, pomegranates, and other festive foods, and reading poetry, especially the work of 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.
Native American Traditions: For the Zuni, one of the Native American Pueblo peoples in western New Mexico, the winter solstice signifies the beginning of the year. It’s 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 in Northern Arizona celebrate the winter solstice with a similar ritual. 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.