Celebrate the Winter Solstice with Traditions from Around the World

Reader Contribution by RenÉE Benoit
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Photo by Wikimedia Commons

I am Christian by tradition. I celebrate Christmas and all the family events associated with Christmas. However, I’m also a naturalist in the sense that I observe natural phenomenon and I note how natural phenomenon impacts my life. The Winter Solstice is one natural event that is particularly important to me because it signals the return of the growing season and the lengthening days of sunlight.

We are traveling this year, so we won’t get to hold our annual solstice bonfire on the beach. In years past we would go to Ocean Beach in San Francisco and build a big bonfire and roast hot dogs and have a winter picnic with the waves crashing nearby and the wind howling all around us. This year I don’t know what we are going to do. Our current campground doesn’t allow campfires because of fire hazard. Maybe we can find a lake shoreline nearby but I’m not holding out a lot of hope.

Here are some solstice traditions from around the world. How do you celebrate the cycles of nature?

St. Lucia Day, Scandinavia

In Scandinavia, St. Lucia Day on December 13 (the solstice by the old calendar) marks the start of the Christmas season with a procession of young women in white robes, red sashes, and wreaths of candles on their heads, lighting the way through the darkness of winter. Gingersnaps, saffron-flavored buns, and warm drinks are traditionally served.

Dong Zhi, China

This festival is celebrated on December 21 with family gatherings and a big meal, including rice balls called tang yuan. Thought to mark the end of the harvest season, the holiday also has roots in the Chinese concept of yin and yang: after the solstice, the darkness of winter will begin to be balanced with the light of the sun.

Stonehenge, England

Modern revelers gather at dawn the day after the longest night to witness the magical occurrence of the sun rising through the stones.

Shab-e Yalda, Iran

This Persian festival celebrates the end of shorter days and means “birth”. Yalda is marked by family gatherings, candles, poetry readings, and a feast. Nuts and fruits, including watermelon and pomegranates, are traditionally eaten.

Toji, Japan

The winter solstice is called Toji in Japan. Traditionally, kabocha squash is eaten, because it would have been one of the few foodstuffs that would have been available. A hot bath with yuzu citrus fruits refreshes body and spirit, wards off illness, and soothes dry winter skin.

Santo Tomas Festival, Guatemala

This festival is celebrated for a week leading up to the winter solstice. Like many Latin American holidays, it’s a mix of Catholic ceremonies with native rituals that were timed to the solstice. The feast is marked with brightly colored costumes, masks, parades, fireworks, and music. The highlight is the death-defying custom of the Flying Pole event: a brave person climbs a 100-foot pole, ties on a rope, and jumps off the top.

Soyal, Hopi Tribe

The Hopi people of Arizona celebrate the winter solstice as part of their religious tradition of kachina, which are spirits that represent the natural world. In the Soyal solstice ceremony, the sun is welcomed back with ritual dances, gift-giving to children, prayers for the coming year, singing, and storytelling.

Illuminations, California’s mission churches

In the Spanish Mission churches in California at dawn on the winter solstice, a shaft a light appears through a window over the door, illuminating the altar and its sacred objects.  The churches were apparently built to align with the sun’s path, in what could have been an effort to merge the indigenous peoples’ reverence for the solstice with Christian beliefs. Today, people gather at the churches to witness this recently re-discovered phenomenon.

Dongji, South Korea

“Little New Year” is marked in South Korea with the eating of a red bean porridge called patjuk. Red is considered to be a lucky color, so in doing so, the celebrants make good wishes for the coming year. Other traditions include giving calendars and socks. This is also a day Koreans wish for snow: cold weather on the winter solstice is said to bring a bountiful harvest, but warm weather will not.

The preceding were from Reader’s Digest, edited for brevity.


Renée Benoitis a writer, artist, ranch caretaker and dedicated do-it-yourselfer who currently lives in a 26-foot travel trailer with her husband, a cat, and two dogs while they travel the Western United States in search of beautiful, peaceful vistas and hijinks and shenanigans. Connect with Renée atRL Benoit, andread all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts.


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