Yesterday was the winter solstice. It is a time that we often associate with Christmas, Yuletide, Hanukkah, or the Feast of Saint Lucia. Candles are lit, trees and rooftops are decorated with strings of light, parties are held, and gifts are exchanged. The lighting of lights to relieve the cold and dark of this time of year symbolizes hope and perseverance. It might be surprising, then, to learn some of the other ways that the longest night is celebrated throughout the world.
The word “solstice” is derived from Latin words meaning “the standing still of the sun”. While the winter version is most commonly referred to as the shortest day of the year, it is actually a point of inflection which occurs at a specific time: this year it was December 22 at 5:30 UTC. The time refers to the precise moment when the northern hemisphere has reached its furthest distance from the sun before dramatically shifting directions.
Historically, celebrations surrounding the solstice are as much about this critical turning point as they are about darkness and light. Many, such as Goru among the Dogon people of Mali, mark the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter.
Other traditions, however, reflect the transition by taking on a subversive form, where participants engage in activities that upend the standard order. Bacchanalian festivals in Ancient Rome and Greece such as Brumali or Saturnalia were times of casting off social restraints, of drinking and merriment, and of some other, more unusual, customs: slaves would enjoy a banquet served to them by their masters.
This reversal of order is achieved elsewhere by wearing disguises. In the Junkanoo festivals celebrated in the Carribbean, parades feature elaborate, symbolic costumes. The Cornish custom on Mummer’s Day is to march through town with blackened faces or masks. In several traditions, ghost stories are told, and spirits are said to haunt the living, as in the Scandinavian Feast of Saint Lucia, during which the demon Lussi is said to frighten children who have not been good.
Other cultures simply embrace the longest night by staying awake for its duration, such as the Persian festival Yalda, or Shab-e Chelleh, in which families gather together to feast on pomegranates and dried fruits, stay up all night, and listen to poetry. Celebrating throughout the night was also the custom of the Inca and of the Mapuche of Chile (though their rituals for the longest night of the year in the southern hemisphere took place on the opposite solstice in June). The observers would stay up several nights waiting for sunrise, celebrating the assurance that the sun would return.
The eventual triumph of light over darkness and the symbolism of renewal are some of the strongest themes prevalent in these celebrations. Sol Invictus from the Roman Empire translates as “the undefeated sun”. The Kurdish _ewy Yelda portrays the sun as being reborn after the solstice. In contrast, Dong Zhi in China celebrates the “arrival of winter” and the interrelationship between darkness and light as part of the yin and yang philosophy. Families gather, and a sweet soup made with pink and white rice dumplings is served.
While we often think of the winter solstice as simply the shortest period of daylight in the year, throughout history and the world, there is a richer picture. However you are celebrating, have a happy solstice.