Local History


By Published On: December 1st, 2023

Most of us in the Northeast know the winter solstice as the shortest day of the year. This is because the Earth’s poles reach their maximum tilt away from the sun, which results in the shortest period of daylight and the longest night of the year. In the northern hemisphere, it takes place in December, and in the southern hemisphere, in June. 

Others know the winter solstice as the first official day of winter, but for many cultures, the winter solstice is an important date in the annual cycle, frequently marked by festivals and celebrations. For us folks in the northern hemisphere, the winter solstice will occur on Thursday, December 21 at 10:27pm. 

The date was celebrated in the cultures of ancient Rome, China, and England and is currently still celebrated by pagans and Buddhists, among many others from various cultures. 

The history of the winter solstice

The History Channel estimates that humans likely observed the winter solstice as early as the Neolithic period – otherwise known as the last part of the Stone Age, beginning about 10,200 BC. Many Neolithic monuments, including the Newgrange in Ireland and the Maeshowe in Scotland, are directly aligned with the sunrise on the winter solstice. Stonehenge in England is also oriented toward the winter solstice sunset. Many historians and archaeologists theorize that these structures once served as ritualistic monuments for the Stone Age people to “capture the sun on the year’s shortest day.” 

In many cultures, the winter solstice was recognized as the symbolic death and rebirth of the sun. For the ancient Romans and Greeks and others that used cyclic calendars, the solstice was viewed as the start of the new year. 

Ancient solstice celebrations

One ancient solstice celebration includes Yule, which was celebrated by the Norse of Scandinavia from the winter solstice in December through January. The men would bring home logs, which later became known as Yule logs, and would set one end of the logs on fire. The people would then feast until the log burned out, which “could take as long 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,” according to Britannica.

While folks may not feast for 12 days during the solstice anymore, the concept of a Yule log has made its way into modern culture and become synonymous with the holidays. 

Wiccans are a group of modern pagans who typically identify as witches and draw inspiration from pre-Christian religions in Europe. They celebrate the winter solstice as the second sabbat of the Wheel of the Year, which is often marked by rituals that welcome the return of the sun. According to Britannica, “some mark the holiday with reenactments of the battle between the Holly King (representing darkness) and the Oak King (representing light) of Celtic legend.”

Another ancient solstice celebration took place in Peru and was known as “Inti Raymi.” The Inca Empire used their celebration to pay homage to the sun god, Inti. They would fast for three days prior to the solstice. On the day of the solstice, they would go to a ceremonial plaza and wait for sunrise. When the sun came up, the Inca would offer cups of chicha, a sacred beer made from fermented corn, and sacrifice animals, including llamas. Following the Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire, the Inti Raymi celebration was banned, but it was revived in the 20th century and continues to be celebrated in Peru (sans the animal sacrifices – they now use mock sacrifices instead). 

Saturnalia was an ancient pagan Roman celebration that honored the god Saturn. Saturnalia is the source of many modern traditions that are now associated with Christmas, including wreaths and gift-giving. The celebration initially began as a single day but later expanded to be a weeklong festival. 

Modern celebrations

St. Lucia’s Day is a festival of lights celebrated annually in Scandinavia to honor one of the earliest Christian martyrs, St. Lucia. The celebration was originally incorporated with Norse solstice traditions after many converted to Christianity in the 10th century. 

St. Lucia’s Day incorporates earlier solstice traditions of lighting fires to drive away spirits with Christian traditions in honor of St. Lucia (St. Lucy in English) who is known as a symbol of light. Each year on St. Lucia’s day, girls wear white dresses and wreaths of candles on their heads in honor of the candles that Lucia wore on her head to light the way as she brought forbidden food to imprisoned Christians. 

Dong Zhi is the Chinese celebration of the winter solstice and is most frequently celebrated by families getting together to feast and share positive wishes for the year to come. Dong Zhi means “winter arrives” in Chinese, and the celebration “welcomes the return of longer days and the corresponding increase in positive energy in the year to come.” In southern China, the most traditional food is tang yuan, or glutinous rice balls, and in northern China, plain or meat-stuffed dumplings. 

In Japan, people celebrate Toji, which is a traditional practice in which people light bonfires to encourage the sun’s return, take warm baths scented with yuzu to ward off colds and foster good health, and eat kabocha squash, which is thought to bring luck.

Iranian’s celebrate Shab-e Yalda (which translates to “night of birth”), a traditional festival with traditions such as gathering together, making wishes, feasting on festive foods, and lighting fires to ward off darkness. “Some stay awake all night to rejoice in the moment when the sun rises, banishing evil and announcing the arrival of good.” 

Native Americans have many traditions for the solstice as well. The Zuni tribe, native to New Mexico, celebrate with a ceremonial dance known as the Shalako. For the Zuni, the winter solstice represents the beginning of the year. Soyal is celebrated by the Hopi tribe in northern Arizona. Their annual ritual is similar to that of the Zuni in that an all-night ceremony occurs, including burning fires, dancing, and occasionally gift-giving. The Hopi also welcome kachinas, protective spirits from the mountains, at the time of the solstice and craft prayer sticks to use for blessings and rituals. 

Your own solstice celebration

Whatever your cultural traditions are, celebrating the winter solstice has been around since the Stone Age and will continue to be celebrated long after we are gone. So burn a yule log, light a candle, or prepare a feast to mark the winter solstice and celebrate the shortest day of the year and the rebirth of the sun. •