13 Fascinating Winter Solstice Traditions Around the World
In 2023 in the northern hemisphere, the winter solstice is Dec. 21. Remember, the days just get longer from here! Read on to learn how winter solstice traditions are celebrated across the globe.
Winter solstice traditions from around the globe
Just when you think December has enough to celebrate between Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and New Year’s, there’s yet another reason to gather with your loved ones and get festive: the winter solstice 2023. You might be more familiar with the winter solstice as the day with the shortest amount of sunlight. But around the world, many cultures still celebrate the longest night of the year with unique winter solstice traditions. Read on to find out what they are.
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Winter solstice traditions: Saint Lucia Day, Scandinavia
As with many modern celebrations, ancient festivals observing the winter solstice merged with newer winter solstice rituals to create the holiday season as we know it today. In Scandinavia, Saint Lucia Day (also called Saint Lucy’s Day) on Dec. 13—the solstice by the old calendar—marks the start of the Christmas season. A procession of young women in white robes, red sashes and wreaths of candles on their heads lights the way through the darkness of winter. Honoring Saint Lucia (aka Saint Lucy), this festival incorporates pagan winter solstice celebrations marked by bonfires. Gingersnaps, saffron-flavored buns and glogg are traditionally served.
Winter solstice traditions: Dongzhi, China
This thousands-of-years-old festival on Dec. 21, 22 or 23 is celebrated 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 abundance of darkness in winter will begin to be balanced with the light of the sun.
Winter solstice traditions: Stonehenge gathering, England
Although no one knows exactly why the ancient circle of Stonehenge was built, there’s no denying it lines up with the movements of the sun. It’s one of the global monuments built around the summer solstice, and archaeological research suggests winter solstice festivals happened there. Modern revelers have taken up the tradition, gathering at dawn the day after the longest night to witness the magical occurrence of the sun rising through the stones. The best part? It’s free of charge, although parking is limited. Visitors can even walk right up to the stones, an area usually roped off, for this peaceful and sacred winter solstice celebration.
Winter solstice traditions: Shab-e Yalda, Iran
This ancient Persian festival, like many winter solstice holidays, celebrates the end of shorter days and the victory of light over darkness. Meaning “birth,” Yalda is marked by family gatherings, candles (originally fires lit all night), poetry readings and a feast to get through the longest night of the year. Nuts and fruits, including watermelon and pomegranates, are traditionally eaten—legend has it that eating the fruits of summer will protect you from illness in winter.
Winter solstice traditions: Winter Solstice Lantern Festival, Vancouver, British Columbia
To honor the many cultural winter solstice traditions, Vancouver’s Secret Lantern Society created the city’s annual Winter Solstice Lantern Festival. Participants can attend workshops to create their lanterns. On the night of the solstice, processions march throughout the city, culminating in fire performances. Attendees can also try to find their way through the Labyrinth of Light, a maze of 600 candles that invites visitors to let go of old thoughts and find new possibilities for the new year. This year, the festival is taking place from Nov. 24 to Dec. 21.
Winter solstice traditions: Toji, Japan
The winter solstice in Japan, called Toji, has a few interesting customs associated with it. Traditionally, a winter squash called kabocha is eaten, one of only a few crops that would have been available in days of old. You’ll feel as if you’re on a warm winter getaway after taking a hot bath with yuzu citrus fruits. The bath is believed to refresh the body and spirit, ward off illness and soothe dry winter skin. Apparently rodents called capybaras love yuzu baths as well, and in a modern twist on the age-old tradition, some Japanese zoos will throw the fruit into the warm waters the animals soak in on the winter solstice.
Winter solstice traditions: Santo Tomas Festival, Guatemala
Although the Catholic church now observes the Feast of Saint Thomas on July 3, in Chichicastenango, Guatemala, the festival is still celebrated for a week leading up to the winter solstice of Dec. 21. Why? Likely because it’s a mix of the Catholic ceremony with native Mayan rituals that may have been timed to the solstice. Today, the feast features brightly colored traditional costumes, masks, parades, fireworks and music, making Guatemala a great winter destination. The highlight is the death-defying custom of the “flying pole dance”: climbing a 100-foot pole, tying on a rope and jumping off the top. Yikes!
Winter solstice traditions: Soyal, Hopi Tribe
The indigenous Hopi people of present-day northern Arizona celebrate the winter solstice as part of their religious tradition honoring kachina (or katsina), which are ancestral spirits representing the natural world. During the Soyal solstice ceremony, which is led by a tribal chief, the sun is welcomed back to its summer path with ritual dances. Gift-giving to children, prayers for the coming year, singing and storytelling are also part of the festivities. Prayer sticks and kachina dolls are often made in preparation for the celebration.
Winter solstice traditions: Burning the Clocks, Brighton, England
Fire, needed to light the dark days of winter, has traditionally been part of winter solstice celebrations. The modern-day Burning of Clocks festival in the seaside town of Brighton took up that notion for its yearly solstice parade, bonfire and fire show. People wearing costumes representing clocks and the passage of time march to the beach with lanterns made of wood and paper. There, the lanterns are burned in a huge bonfire, symbolizing the wishes, hopes and fears that will be passed into the flames.
Winter solstice traditions: Newgrange gathering, Ireland
The 5,200-year-old Newgrange passage tomb and ancient temple are aligned to the winter solstice: A small opening above the entrance fills with light on several sunrises surrounding the solstice, gradually extending throughout the chamber to illuminate it. The dramatic effect lasts for 17 minutes. Although the exact reason the tomb was created this way isn’t known, it’s speculated that it marks the beginning of a new year and the triumph of light over darkness. Today, visitors can apply for a lottery drawing to be inside the temple at the moment of the sunrise; others will gather outside the monument.
Winter solstice traditions: Illuminations, California’s mission churches
An illumination effect similar to that seen in Ireland’s Newgrange tomb has been discovered halfway around the world in more recent (though still old) structures: mission churches in California and Latin America, such as Old Mission San Juan Bautista, built by Spanish missionaries in the late 18th and early 19th centuries to convert Native Americans to Catholicism. At dawn on the winter solstice, a shaft of light enters the church and illuminates the altar or a sacred object. The churches appear to have been built purposefully to align with the sun’s path, in what could have been an effort to merge the indigenous people’s reverence for the solstice with Christian beliefs. Today, people gather at the churches to witness this recently rediscovered phenomenon and celebrate with Native American and Catholic traditions.
Winter solstice traditions: Dongji, South Korea
In South Korea, the winter solstice is known as Dongji. One of the winter solstice rituals includes eating a red bean porridge called patjuk. Red is considered to be a lucky color, so the dish is meant to keep bad spirits away while embracing good wishes for the coming year. Other Dongji traditions include giving calendars, as Korean kings used to do, and socks. And this is a day where Koreans wish for snow, as cold weather on the winter solstice is said to bring a bountiful harvest.
Winter solstice traditions: Montol Festival, Cornwall, England
A reinterpretation of ancient Cornish winter solstice rituals, the winter solstice festival of Montol, begun in 2007 in the town of Penzance, celebrates the culture of England’s westernmost peninsula. Wearing carnival-like costumes, guisers (those wearing disguises) form a procession with lanterns, creating a “river of fire” meant to celebrate the return of the sun. In the old custom, guisers would roam the streets, putting on skits, singing songs and pulling pranks. Part of the fun was trying to guess who was who. Today, traditional music, dancing and performances add to the festive atmosphere.
- Sweden.se: “The Lucia Tradition”
- Britannica: “7 Winter Solstice Celebrations from Around the World”
- Stonehenge Tours: “Stonehenge Winter Solstice Tour”
- Secret Lantern Society: “30th Annual Winter Solstice Lantern Festival”
- National Geographic: “Solstice”
- Japan Kyo: “Does Japan Have the Cutest Winter Solstice Tradition?”
- Rove: “Fiesta de Santo Tomás”
- SameSky: “Burning the Clocks”
- Newgrange.com: “Newgrange – World Heritage Site”
- Smithsonian Magazine: “How the Sun Illuminates Spanish Missions on the Winter Solstice”
- Los Angeles Times: “Winter solstice means ‘illumination’ at California mission”
- Visit Seoul: “A Warm and Sweet Winter Solstice”
- Visit Cornwall: “Montol Festival”
- Montol Festival: “Winter Solstice”