In the Northern Hemisphere on December 21st and 22nd, the longest night of the year takes place, commonly known as the winter solstice. This astronomical phenomenon has been celebrated all around the world since the ancient times as the “return” of the sun. Some of these older traditions have even influenced popular holidays that are widely celebrated today, like Christmas and Hanukkah. To get a sense of the different types of celebrations of the winter solstice, multiple traditions from around the world are described throughout this piece.
The Winter Solstice Lantern Festival, celebrated in Vancouver, keeps the longest night of the year illuminated with lanterns, fire, singing, and dancing. Among the Vancouver neighborhoods, five of them hold small community celebrations that include the Lantern Festival. One of the highlights from these celebrations includes the Labyrinth of Light which is created with more than 700 pure beeswax candle luminarias. The labyrinth warms visitors and leads them in a self-guided ceremony meant for releasing old attachments and imagining new possibilities as the old season ends and a new season begins.
In Iran the Persian festival Yalda is celebrated, which originated from the ancient times. The holiday marks the last day of the Persian month of Azar and is in celebration of the victory of light over dark. It is also the celebration of the birthday of the sun god Mithra. Families will gather together with unique foods to celebrate and some will even stay awake all night to welcome the sun in the morning.
In China the holiday Dong Zhi or the “arrival of winter,” is celebrated around the winter solstice, falling between December 21st and the 23rd. It is a time for families to gather to celebrate the year that has passed, typically bringing special foods like tang yuan rice balls. Gardens will be decorated and illuminated with displays of handmade lanterns. It is a celebration that marks the rebirth of the yang qualities of light and energy and celebrates the end-of-harvest.
Featuring bonfires, lanterns, masked dancing, traditional Cornish caroling, and Christmas market; the Montol Festival celebrates the seasonal traditions of Cornwall, England. With the lighting of “the Mock,” a giant yule log, the festival runs the week before, and includes the solstice. Guests are encouraged to wear black and white costumes and masks as Cornish dancers have done for centuries before during festivities.
In Latvia a festive party celebrates the winter solstice at the Ethnographic Open Air Museum located near Latvia’s capital city. Filled with dancing, folk singing and log-pulling the holiday, Ziemassvetki, celebrates the birth of the god Dievs. The day marks the end of the “season of ghosts”. Candles will be lit for minor gods and a fire is kept burning until the end of festivities. The candles and fire are burnt as a symbol of burning away the unhappiness of the previous year. Traditionally the party itself is built around a feast, with a place left empty for the arrival of ghosts, who are believed to arrive on a sleigh.
It is interesting to see the different perspectives and traditions of this astronomical phenomenon and how they are similarly celebrated all around the world.
Submitted by: Kate Schmitt