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Top 10: Winter Solstice Celebrations

Posted on 12/3/2019 12:00:00 AM in The Buzz

Winter is not always so dark and cold in Sweden—the #1 winter solstice celebration on our list brings light and warmth into the icy Scandinavian air.

For thousands of years, the return of the sun during the winter solstice has been a cause for lively celebrations. As ancient people relied on the sun for warmth, light, and food, the promise of longer days to come was a reason to enjoy feasting, gift-giving, and overall merriment. While many former winter solstice traditions have been absorbed into modern-day December holidays, many of these celebrations continue with joyful festivities and sacred rituals. Here’s our top 10 list for magical winter solstice celebrations that ring in the return of sunlight.

10. Saturnalia, Ancient Rome

As the most popular festival of ancient Rome, the celebration of Saturnalia still continues to influence the western world to this day. Celebrating the agricultural god of Saturn, the festival is most alike to modern-day Christmas with public banquets, games, and gift-giving lasting from December 17 to the 23rd. During this special time of the year, work for the Romans would come to a halt and they would partake in socializing, feasting, playing music, and singing with rules and social order overturned. To celebrate, wax candles called cerei were often given as gifts, and many would decorate their homes with wreaths and greenery to honor Saturn.

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9. Toji, Japan

In Japan, the winter solstice symbolizes harmony and balance in life as the cold and darkest days are at their most dominant and the warmth of the sun is returning. To celebrate this balance, many Japanese participate in a Toji, a practice centered around beginning the new year with good luck and good health. Some enjoy Toji by taking a bath with yuzu, a winter citrus fruit that is known for its cleansing and healing properties, to ward off sickness. Many also eat the nutrient-rich Kabocha squash as a way to fight off winter illnesses.

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8. Stonehenge, England

For thousands of years, the stones of Stonehenge have marked the movements of the sun, so it’s no surprise that the ancient formation is home to large solstice celebrations today. Believed to have been constructed by Neolithic people to align with the sun’s yearly rotation, the sunrise on the shortest day of the year is perfectly visible through the standing stones. Thousands gather at the site each year to watch the “re-birth” of the sun, with many playing trumpets and drums as it rises.

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7. Santo Tomás Festival, Guatemala

Before Christianity was brought to Guatemala, the ingenious Mayan people honored their sun god during the winter solstice, and now, Christianity and Mayan traditions blend together for Guatemala’s unique Fiesta de Santo Tomas. Through colorful pageantry, brightly-colored masks, and celebratory music, the week-long feast honors St. Thomas the Apostle as well as the Mayan sun god. One of the most unique parts of the celebration is a ritual called Palo Volodar, in which brave men climb to the top of a 50-foot pole, attach their legs to a rope, and jump. If they land on their feet, it is believed that the sun god will be pleased and return.

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6. Yule, Northern Europe

Another winter solstice celebration with close ties to Christmas is Yule, a midwinter holiday that was celebrated throughout Northern Europe by Norse and Germanic peoples. During pre-Christian Scandinavia, Yule, or Juul, was a 12-day long feast celebrating the return of the sun. The festival gave rise to the tradition of burning a Yule log—one of many traditions now commonly associated with Christmas. After Christianity was introduced, many of the Yule traditions were absorbed into the practices of Christmas. However, today Yule is still celebrated in traditional forms by those who observe Paganism with feasting and gift-giving.

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5. Soyal, Hopi of Northern Arizona

For over a thousand years the indigenous Hopi People of northern Arizona have celebrated the Soyal Ceremony on the shortest day of the year, a ceremony that symbolizes the second phase of Creation at the Dawn of Life. During this time, the spirits that guard over the Hopi, known as Kachinas, bring the sun over the mountains and back into their lives. The ceremony lasts up to 16 days and is filled with prayers, dances, and lessons from the tribe’s elders. Each of the rituals performed is believed to set up a plan for the coming new year, and it is said that everything that occurs throughout the year is decided upon during Soyal.

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4. Newgrange, Ireland

The prehistoric Newgrange monument in Ireland is another exceptional site built by Neolithic people and aligned with the rotation of the sun. The monument features a 62-foot passageway leading to a chamber positioned perfectly to see the sun as it rises during the winter solstice. On the day of the solstice, sunlight enters through the top of the chamber and slowly illuminates the room in a mesmerizing fashion. Witnessing this spectacular moment from inside requires being selected through an annual lottery, however, many gather outside of the monument for a vibrant celebration on the morning of the solstice.

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3. Dongzhi, China

For more than 2,500 years the Chinese have celebrated the changing of the seasons. The Dongzhi festival, which translates to the “arrival of winter,” welcomes the change from fall to winter. The holiday originated as an end-of-harvest festival where workers could finally return from the fields and rest, however, today, Dongzhi is a time for family to gather and celebrate their past year together. Typically falling between December 21st and 23rd, Dongzhi honors the return of long days and increasing positive energy in the new year.

2. Lohri, Northern India

In the northern Indian region of Punjab and the city of Delhi, Sikhs and Hindus celebrate Lohri on the last day of the month in which the solstice occurs—which corresponds with January 13 on the Gregorian calendar. In the days leading up to Lohri, villagers collect twigs and branches for a giant bonfire, which serves as a backdrop for singing, dancing, and feasting. In households that recently welcomed newlyweds or a new baby, the “first Lohri” after the occasion involves an especially grand celebration, with blessings of prosperity and generous gifts.

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1. Saint Lucia’s Day, Scandinavia

St. Lucia’s Day, celebrated in Norway, Sweden, and Swedish-speaking areas of Finland, is a traditional festival of lights, honoring the Christian martyr of St. Lucia. Held each year on December 13th, the holiday is meant to bring light and hope during the dark winters of Scandinavia. Girls wearing white dresses, red sashes, and wreaths with candles on their heads carry cookies in procession to symbolize the light of Christianity in darkness. It is believed that celebrating the bright festival will cast out the dark spirits of winter and help one to live through the season with enough light.

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