The Winter Solstice and its Place Across Different Cultures
Wherever you are in the world, today the Winter Solstice took place for all us (at 10:44am GMT). But what is the winter solstice, and what traditions are celebrated on this day? Read on to find out!
The winter solstice occurs when the Sun reaches its most southerly declination of -23.5 degrees. In other words, when the North Pole is tilted farthest – 23.5 degrees – away from the Sun, delivering the fewest hours of sunlight of the year. This means that those living in the Northern Hemisphere will experience the shortest day of the year, while those living in the South Hemisphere will experience the longest day. This day is typically referred to as the first day of winter, which is true from an astronomical perspective (though officially winter begins on the 1st of December).
As you’d expect, different cultures across the world celebrate this day in myriad ways.
SHAB-E-YALDA – Iran, Afghanistan
Shab-e Yalda (or Shab-e Chelleh – literally “night of forty” in Persian) is an Iranian festival celebrated on the “longest and darkest night of the year,” that is, in the night of the Northern Hemisphere’s winter solstice.
Friends and family gather together to eat, drink and read poetry (especially Hafez) until well after midnight. Fruits and nuts are eaten and pomegranates and watermelons are particularly significant, as the red colour in these fruits symbolizes the crimson hues of dawn. The poems of Divan-e-Hafez, which can be found in the bookcases of most Iranian families, are intermingled with peoples’ life and are read or recited during various occasions like this festival and at Nowruz.
Light-hearted superstitions run high on this occasion. For instance, it is believed that consuming watermelons on the night of Chelleh will ensure the health and well-being of the individual during the months of summer by protecting him from excessive heat. In Khorasan, a village in Northern Iran, there is a belief that whoever eats carrots, pears, pomegranates, and green olives will be protected against the harmful bite of insects, especially scorpions.
DONGZHI FESTIVAL – China, Taiwan
The Dongzhi Festival is one of the most important festivals celebrated by the Chinese and other East Asians during the Dongzhi solar term (winter solstice) on or around December 22nd. The origins of this festival can be traced back to the yin and yang philosophy of balance and harmony in the cosmos. The belief is that since there will be days with longer daylight hours after the festival, there will also be an increase in the flow of positive energy. Old traditions require people from the same clan to gather at their ancestral temples to worship on this day.
Traditionally, the Dongzhi Festival is a time for the family to come together. One activity that occurs during these get-togethers (especially in the southern parts of China and in Chinese communities overseas) is the making and eating of tangyuan – balls of brightly coloured, glutinous rice, which are meant to symbolize reunion. Each family member receives at least one large tangyuan in addition to several small ones. In Taiwan, many people take some of the tangyuan that have been used as offerings and stick them on the back of the door or on windows and tables and chairs. These “empowered” tangyuan supposedly serve as protective talismans to keep evil spirits from coming close to children!
PAGAN AND DRUID TRADITIONS – UK, Ireland
Stonehenge, the prehistoric monument located in Wiltshire, is carefully aligned on a sight-line that points to the winter solstice sunset. Archaeologists believe it was constructed from 3000 BC to 2000 BC and it is thought that the winter solstice was actually more important to the people who constructed Stonehenge than the Summer solstice.
People in the UK often gather around Stonehenge around this time of year, whether it be Pagans, Druids or just revellers looking for some enjoyment! For Pagans, the winter solstice is the most important day of the year, because it welcomes in the ‘new sun’. Traditionally, the winter solstice was a time when cattle were slaughtered (since food was short in the winter and cattle could not be fed) and the majority of alcohols were fermented.