5 Winter Solstice Traditions From Around the World
“If winter comes, can spring be far behind?”
The countdown to everyone’s favourite time of the year has begun! Yes, it is that time of the year when you take a much-needed break from your routine, spend quality time with your relatives and friends, and settle into the holiday mood.
Although for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, it also means that the gloomy, cold days are here. However, PB Shelley’s quote reflects the hope that every winter solstice signifies – the hope that happier times will arrive soon. Along with the holiday season, comes the strength and courage to survive through winter.
What is the Winter Solstice?
The winter solstice marks the longest night and the shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere and southern hemisphere. It typically takes place between December 20th and December 23rd in the Northern Hemisphere and between June 20th and June 21st in the Southern Hemisphere. This year, it will occur on December 22nd in the Northern Hemisphere.
Cultures around the world have unique traditions to mark this day whether it’s with a special dish or an elaborate ritual. We decided to find out more about such traditions and how the idea of the longest night is interpreted in different parts of the world.
1. If I don’t eat dumplings, will my ears fall off?
Traditionally, the winter solstice in China signifies the end of the harvest – that time of the year when farmers return to their families and enjoy all that their labour has earned throughout the year. As per the Chinese lunar calendar, the winter solstice marks the beginning of the coldest time of the year.
The Chinese tradition calls for the people to eat glutinous rice balls called tang yuan. This tradition dates back to the Eastern Han Dynasty (206 B.C. to 220 A.D.), when a Chinese physician made dumplings for the less privileged who were suffering from chilblains on their ears due to the extreme cold. He made the dumplings with special herbs that helped people fight the cold. Even today, you’ll find Chinese elders say that your ears will fall off if you don’t eat the dumplings.
2. The day of pomegranates and watermelons.
For Iranians, the winter solstice is considered to be a very auspicious occasion. The celebration is called Yalda (meaning “dark night”) or Chelleh (meaning “night of forty”) and is marked forty days before the Persian festival of Jashn-e Sadeh. This festival signifies the victory of light over darkness – welcoming the return of the Sun.
This is a time when friends and family meet at an elderly person’s residence and spend the entire night reading poetry. Along with fruits and nuts, everyone is served red-coloured fruits like pomegranates and watermelons. It is said that red signifies the colour of the sky at dawn. It is also customary to gift baskets of fruits to loved ones on Yalda.
In the present day, this day is seen as a social event where people meet and dine till midnight. Various regions in Iran have localised the Yalda traditions as per their respective tastes. For instance, the locals of Qazvin prepare a meal consisting of sabzi-polau (meaning ‘vegetable rice’) and smoked fish. On the other hand, the residents of Chaharmahal-Bakhtiari boil large red pumpkins, cut them into pieces, and serve them in curd potage.
3. The period of rest and rejuvenation.
For Hawaiians, the year is split into two parts – four months (starting from October) and eight months (starting from March or April). The beginning of the Makahiki season (October to February) also marks the beginning of their new year. Hawaiians consider this time as the resting period for both – land and people – until they start farming again. The ocean, too, is quite rough at this point and so, it becomes impossible for Hawaiians to do any fishing.
Another significant component of the Makahiki season is praying to god Lono. Lono is the god of agriculture and peace. You can see Hawaiians offering food at religious places to thank god Lono for the year’s produce, while also praying to him that the next year brings more fertility to the land.
If you visit Hawaii during Makahiki, you’ll get a complete carnival-like experience with people playing games, sporting events, food, Hawaiian music and dance.
4. Burn all those clocks.
What: Burning of Clocks
Where: Brighton, England
Every year during the winter solstice in December, residents of Brighton throng the streets to participate in or witness the Burning of Clocks. This celebration is a great amalgamation of traditions, beliefs, and communal faith.
Why clocks, you ask? Burning of clocks is a way of protesting the commercialisation of Christmas. Started in 1993, this parade is seen as a commemoration of the Cooperative movement. The burning of clocks is a way of introducing new urban rituals that aren’t limited to any faith. People of the community get together, make decorative items by hand, and have fun with their family and friends.
You’ll see a parade that walks towards the sea, carrying willow lanterns made of handmade paper. When the parade reaches the sea, there’s an explosion of fireworks and a bonfire made from burning clocks. The clothes worn by the participants may have clock faces to symbolise the concept of the event.
Did you know Burning of Clocks is a crowdfunded event? An arts charity called Same Sky organises the event every year with some help from the City Council. The town’s local businesses and citizens pitch in to make the celebration memorable.
5. The chamber of lights.
What: Newgrange Gathering
Would you believe that close to 5000 people sign up to see the winter solstice’s sun rays brighten up a room in a tomb, every year? Newgrange (also known as the Newgrange Stone Age Passage Tomb) located in County Meath, Ireland attracts the curiosity of people from Canada, Australia, Brazil, and many other countries. But wait, there’s a catch. All the applications go through an annual lottery system and only 60 lucky ones get the chance to witness this phenomenon (also known as Newgrange gathering).
No sun at Newgrange this #WinterSolstice but it didn't matter: this morning was about the ritual gathering in a sacred space, just as our ancestors did 5000 years ago. Met old friends and colleagues, a perfect start to the holidays. Happy Solstice everyone!! #BoyneValley pic.twitter.com/WMlB270DGF— Dr Ciarán McDonnell (@DrCiaranMcDonn) December 21, 2018
It is said that the sun’s rays illuminate a chamber at the end of a 62-ft long passage for exactly 17 minutes, starting around 8:50 am. Historians haven’t been able to find the reason for the 5000-year old tomb’s existence yet. This once-in-a-year astronomical phenomenon has been religiously witnessed by winter solstice enthusiasts.
No matter what tradition or ritual people follow, the idea of winter solstice has always been associated with celebrating a prosperous year and the subsequent rebirth of the land. It is amazing how people in different parts of the world celebrate this event in their own unique way, while not letting Christmas overshadow its importance.
How do you celebrate the winter solstice in your community? Let us know in the comments below.