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Winter Solstice Traditions from Around the World

The sun sets over snow-covered mountains. On the left of the picture, the green and pink colors of the northern lights are beginning to appear.

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:

  1. Sunrise on the summer solstice

  2. 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.

A view of the sunset over the Stonehenge rock formation in England.

Shab-e Yalda

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.

Two trays are displayed on a black silk blanket. The left tray has two whole pomegranates and two halves of a sliced one. The tray on the right has two lit red candles, two small pomegranates, and a sprig of pine.

Dong Zhi

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.

A red background has shows an above view of a black tea kettle with two tea cups. A white bowl with white Tang Yuan dessert dumplings sit on a wooden board. Pink cherry blossom and red silk Shan fans decorate the scene.

Toji (Japan)

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!

A wooden tub is filled with what appears to be hot water and the Japanese citrus yuzu. A hand holds the fruit floating in the tub while more fruit is in a wooden bucket on the edge of the water.