What is the winter solstice?
Astronomically, the winter solstice occurs when the sun reaches its maximum latitude south of the celestial equator for the northern hemisphere. (Winter solstice occurs in the southern hemisphere in June when the sun reaches its northernmost position or declination. This is the summer solstice in the northern hemisphere). Of course, it’s not actually the sun that’s moving to the north and south marking the seasons. It’s actually the wobble of the earth on its spin axis in its orbital around the sun— a degree of about 23.5. This point along the celestial sphere is known as the Tropic of Capricorn in the Southern Hemisphere and the Tropic of Cancer in the Northern Hemisphere.
As the earth rotates around the sun in its orbit, one hemisphere tilts towards the sun. It’s summertime in that hemisphere. As our planet continues along its path, because of the earth’s tilt, the opposite hemisphere will tilt toward the sun. This rotation is what causes the seasons on earth. The changes in those seasons are marked by solstices and equinoxes. As the northern hemisphere points away from the sun, the days become shorter, the weather becomes colder, and the nights become longer.
The significance of winter solstice to human beings
In the days of early human beings, the significance of these solar phenomena was far greater than the significance they have in the modern world. The sun often was the inspiration for deities and their worship. In the days of our ancestors, the disappearance of the sun and its warmth was likely marked by fear and uncertainty. The summer harvest is over, the nights are long and cold. The winter pause a necessary step in the life cycle of all things.
But the traditions surrounding this longest night (sometimes called Yule in early European cultures) have been celebrated as a positive time by many cultures. The return of the sun. The triumph of the light over the darkness. A rebirth, and a new year. The days get longer from here as the sun journeys back into the opposite hemisphere, coaxing new life with its return in spring.
Many traditions and symbols from pagan customs are still used today. They share the common themes of new life and the welcoming of the sun’s return. Here are some winter solstice traditions from around the world.
Sunset at Stonehenge
Stonehenge monument in England is perhaps the most famous structure left behind by our ancestors in the Neolithic Period. For a long time, the significance of Stonehenge was unknown, but like many early peoples, the tribute was centered around the sun's movement. There are at least two significant celestial occurrences that the Stonehenge structures framed:
Sunrise on the summer solstice
Sunset on the winter solstice
It is often speculated that some of the earliest traditions of winter solstice celebrations include staying awake and feasting throughout the longest night.
This year (2022) the sunrise at Stonehenge will be live-streamed on the morning after the winter solstice on December 22. If you plan on adding an all-nighter to your solstice celebrations this year, why not cap it off with a Stonehenge sunrise?
P.S. For those in the United States, there’s an “America Stonehenge” formation, better known as Mystery Hill estimated to be over 4,000 years old located in Salem, New Hampshire. Researchers associated with the site believe that the builders were skilled in astronomy, like the builders of England’s 'Stonehenge' and other structures from throughout the world with architecture of astronomical significance, though the site has been altered so no one knows its origins for sure.
The literal translation of Shab is “night” and Yalda means “birth.” This winter solstice tradition is celebrated in Iran and includes staying awake all night to witness the triumph of the light over the darkness. Foods shared by families included summer fruits such as pomegranates which were meant to promote good health to get through winter months. Seeds were also symbolic of rebirth and were consumed during the winter solstice.
Yin and yang is a Chinese philosophy of harmony and interconnection between all things. The light and the dark, earth and heaven, the masculine and the feminine. Both complement each other and are the forces that balance all of life. So it is natural that the Chinese celebration of the winter solstice would celebrate the peak of yin energy. Dongzhi, meaning “winter’s arrival” is a hopeful celebration with offerings honoring ancestors and winter feasts with family.
Also rooted in the Chinese philosophy of yin and yang, the Japanese celebration of Toji celebrates yin energy and the longest night of the year with rituals signifying rebirth and hopes for good health. Often, Japanese customs will welcome the winter solstice with cleansing in hot springs or baths infused with yuzu, a winter citrus plant that is known for its healing properties. Sounds like a refreshing start to a new season!
Saint Lucia’s Day
Saint Lucia’s Day is actually celebrated in Scandinavia on December 13th but coincides well with older pagan solstice rituals from the region. A day to honor Saint Lucia, in modern parades, girls wear white gowns and wear a wreath with candles on their heads as Lucia was thought to do when she secretly brought food to Christian prisoners of the Roman Empire.
Inti Raymi is the winter solstice celebration in the ancient Inca Empire. Celebrated in June during the southern hemisphere’s winter, this ritual was performed in the Inca empire to pay homage to Inti, the Sun god. The ceremonies would last several days beginning on June 21st leading up to the main event on June 24th, when the Inca believed that the sun finally rises. Rituals included fasting several days prior to the 24th, and even included human and animal sacrifices. The Spanish banned the pagan ceremonies in favor of their Christian ones, and it wasn’t until 1944 that the Inti Raymi rituals were recreated (minus the human sacrifices). The Inti Raymi festival is still celebrated in Peru and South America today and attracts many visitors and participants.
Winter solstice pagan symbols that made their way into other religious traditions
Ever wonder where some of the decorations and holiday traditions you keep in your home come from?
Yule log: In ancient Norse and Celtic traditions, a Yule log was burned throughout the longest night of the year on the solstice. In some traditions, a piece of the Yule log was kept aside to light the next year’s Yule log.
A Yule Tree: While you’re patiently untangling the strings of lights with which you’ll decorate your tree this holiday season, you can ponder that the evergreen tree, typically fir or pine trees, was chosen as a symbol of life. These year-round living trees were adorned with candles during pagan solstice ceremonies and edible treats like popcorn for forest spirits to eat.
Holly: the evergreen plant that is now iconically associated with the Christmas holiday was used to represent prosperity during the winter. Wreaths made of holly were hung on doors to repel bad spirits and offer protection.
Bells: Jingle all the way? Before the classic Christmas carol, bells were traditionally rung on the winter solstice to ward off evil spirits and call back the brighter days.
Wreaths: The circular weaving of evergreen branches represents the circle of life. They were gifted to others as a sign of goodwill.
Ways that you can celebrate the winter solstice this year
Light candles or a fire and turn off electric lights to experience the longest night more naturally
Cook gingerbread or make a meal to share with others using seasonal ingredients
Stay up with family and friends telling stories.
Watch the sunrise on the day after the solstice
Make gifts using natural materials like evergreen wreaths
Decorate a yule tree with popcorn
Set your intentions for the new year. Write them down
Practice gratitude for the cycles and seasons of life
Rastch, Christian. Müller-Ebeling, Claudia. 2006. Pagan Christmas: The Plants, Spirits, and Rituals at the Origins of Yuletide. Simon and Schuster
Eldridge, Alison. "7 Winter Solstice Celebrations From Around the World". Encyclopedia Britannica, 12 Dec. 2013, https://www.britannica.com/list/7-winter-solstice-celebrations-from-around-the-world. Accessed 19 December 2022.
Pruitt, S. (2016, December 20). 8 winter solstice celebrations around the world. History.com. Retrieved December 19, 2022, from https://www.history.com/news/8-winter-solstice-celebrations-around-the-world
Mahdavi, Pardis. "A Persian festival, Yalda, celebrates the triumph of light over darkness, with pomegranates, poetry and sacred rituals". Encyclopedia Britannica, 20 Dec. 2021, https://www.britannica.com/story/the-persian-festival-yalda-celebrates-the-triumph-of-light-over-darkness. Accessed 19 December 2022.
Stokes, A. (2020, December 26). Yule traditions and symbols. Sacred Earth Journeys. Retrieved December 19, 2022, from https://www.sacredearthjourneys.ca/blog/traditions-and-symbols-of-yule/