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The Winter Solstice

By: Maria Hendrickson, MA, MBA, ICAADC, ICCDPD,Referral Specialist

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Solstice (Latin: solstitium) means : “sun-stopping.”  The point on the horizon where the sun appears to rise and set, stops and reverses direction after this day. On the solstice, the sun does not rise precisely in the east, but rises to the north of east and sets to the north of west, meaning it's visible in the sky for a longer period of time.

Although winter is the season of dormancy, darkness and cold, the December Solstice marks the "turning of the sun" and the days slowly get longer. Celebrations of the lighter days to come and nature’s continuing cycle have been common throughout cultures and history with feasts, festivals and holidays organized around the December Solstice. Here are some solstice celebrations that have traditionally lit the way for observers to the longer days of summer.

1.  Soyal is the winter solstice celebration of the Hopi Indians of northern Arizona. Ceremonies and rituals include purification, dancing, and sometimes gift-giving. At the time of the solstice, Hopi welcome the Kachinas, protective spirits from the mountains.

2. The Persian festival Yalda, or Shab-e Yalda is a celebration of the winter solstice in Iran that started in ancient times.  It marks the last day of the Persian month of Azar.  Yalda is viewed traditionally as the victory of light over dark, and the birthday of the sun god Mithra. Families celebrate together with special foods like nuts and pomegranates and some stay awake all night long to welcome the morning sun.

3.  Inti-Raymi is the solstice celebration which comes in June rather than December. But, for Peru, it is a winter solstice, and this Incan celebration is in honor of the Sun-god Inti . Originally celebrated by the Inca before the arrival of Spanish conquistadors, the festivities included feasts and sacrifices. The Spaniards banned the holiday, but it was revived (with mock sacrifices instead of real ones) in the 20th century and is still celebrated today.

4. The ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia is perhaps the most closely linked with the modern celebration of Christmas. This festival happened around the time of the winter solstice and celebrated the end of the planting season. There were games and feasts and gift-giving for several days, and social order was inverted—slaves did not work and were briefly treated as equals. 

5.Thanks to the researchers staying there over the long and dangerously cold season, even Antarctica gets its share of solstice celebrations.  While we in the Northern Hemisphere are enjoying the most daylight hours, in the Southern Hemisphere they are celebrating Midwinter. Festivities include special meals, films, and sometimes even handmade gifts.

6. St. Lucia’s Day is a festival of lights celebrated in Scandinavia around the time of the winter solstice. Although it is now meant to honor St. Lucia, a Christian martyr, it has been incorporated with earlier Norse solstice traditions, such as lighting fires to ward off spirits during the longest night. Girls dress up in white gowns with red sashes and wear wreaths of candles on their heads in honor of St. Lucia.

7. Dong Zhi, the “arrival of winter,” is an important festival in China. It is a time for family to get together and celebrate the year they have had. Based on the traditional Chinese celestial calendar, the holiday generally falls between the 21st and 23rd of December. It is thought to have started as an end-of-harvest festival, with workers returning from the fields and enjoying the fruits of their labors with family. Special foods, such as tang yuan( glutinous rice balls), are enjoyed.

In these traditions, the recurrent theme is thanksgiving, sharing and welcoming the longer days.  Let’s rejoice in all the blessings 2015 has brought us and pray for peace to prevail in the world to all men of good will in the New Year.



“Holidays and Traditions around December Solstice”,

Eldridge, Alison:   “Seven Winter Solstice Celebrations from Around the World ,