What is the winter solstice?
The earth slowly tilts during its journey around the sun, which shifts the length of our days, among many other things. On December 21st, the sun aligns with the Tropic of Capricorn, giving the Southern Hemisphere much longer days and the Northern Hemisphere shorter ones.
In SF, the sun takes its lowest and shortest path across the sky, leaving us with a frustratingly short day. This also means that you’ll cast your longest midday shadow of the year, in case you want to try it out on your lunch break.
While our day is fairly short the Southern Hemisphere is experiencing its summer solstice at the exact same time. So feel free to congratulate your Australian friends on their day in the sun.
How do people celebrate winter solstice around the world?
Outside of Unitarian Universalists and a few Neo-Pagan traditions, there isn’t a strong winter solstice tradition in the Bay Area. That said, there are plenty of winter solstice traditions around the globe with ancient roots. Here are a few celebrations that you might be less familiar with.
The Hopi, a Native American tribe in Northern Arizona, celebrate Soyal on the winter solstice. The celebration includes ceremonies such as purification rituals, dancing, and some gift-giving. During the solstice, Hopi welcome kachinas, protective spirits from the mountains, and “establish life anew for all the world.”
Yalda is a Persian festival, also known as Shab-e Yalda, which is held during the winter solstice. This solstice celebration is viewed traditionally as the victory of light over dark, and the birthday of the sun god Mithra. In Iran, pomegranates and nuts are traditionally eaten during the celebration, with some folks opting to stay awake all night to welcome the morning sun.
The closest relative to our modern Christmas celebration is probably the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia. The festival was celebrated with several days of gift-giving, great feasts, and an inversion of the social order where slaves didn’t work and were temporarily treated as equals.
St. Lucia’s Day
A festival of lights known as St. Lucia’s Day is celebrated across Scandinavia around the winter solstice. It’s meant to be a celebration of the Christian martyr, St. Lucia, but the modern celebration is a blend of many old Norse solstice traditions. Girls dress up in white gowns and red sashes, with wreaths of candles on their heads, in honor of the saint. Large fires are also built to ward off spirits during the longest night.
Celebrating the “arrival of winter,” Dong Zhi is an important festival in China. Based on the traditional Chinese celestial calendar, It’s a time for families to come together and enjoy the fruits of their labor after a season of harvest. Glutinous rice balls, known as tang yuan, are a traditional food during the celebration.
What should I do on the winter solstice?
There are plenty of folks that are drinking mulled cider, spending time with friends, and setting intentions for the new year, which are great ways to celebrate. The early sunset is also a great opportunity to get out and enjoy some of the extraordinary light displays across the Bay Area and stop by a few of the dazzling holiday trees across SF.
However you plan to celebrate, stay safe, stay warm, and get ready for some much-needed sunshine to slowly return.