Today marks a turning point – it is the winter solstice, the day of the year with the least light. Our days have been waning since the middle of the summer, growing shorter and shorter with each nightfall. Think of the winter solstice as the sun’s version of a new moon – we will see the least of its light today, but tomorrow, it will wax once again.
Scientifically speaking, the winter solstice is caused by the Earth’s tilt. When the northern hemisphere tilts closer to the sun, we have summer, but when it’s tilted away, we have winter. The winter solstice is the point when the northern hemisphere is tilted the furthest away from the sun, which causes us to receive the least sunlight.
The solstice (and winter itself) is one of the origins for our holiday season. Before we had greenhouses, refrigerators, and 24/7 supermarkets, our food supply was inescapably tied to the changing of the seasons. Winter was an unforgiving time of year – food, warmth, and light were all scarce. The entire year was essentially spent preparing for the winter. Cows were slaughtered so they wouldn’t use up precious food during the winter, and the wine that had been fermenting all year was finally ready to drink. The solstice festival was the last feast and celebration of life before winter.
Festivals on the winter solstice were (and are) religious as well. The daylight has been lessening for weeks, and the solstice represents the reversal of this process, where the sun begins to regain its strength. Unsurprisingly, our ancestors associated this with the cycle of death and rebirth.
The winter solstice is still celebrated today as well, with many ancient traditions still being practiced alongside modern holidays. It’s a bit romantic when you think about it – on the darkest day of the year, we celebrate our lives and the people who light them.
Yalda – Iran
During the darkest night of the year, Iranian families drink, eat, and recite poetry together in celebration of Yalda. Watermelons, pomegranates, and nuts are eaten, their red coloring representative of dawn and life. Eating watermelons for Yalda is believed to bring good health in summer.
Lohri – Punjab Region, India
The lighting of the bonfire is an iconic part of Lohri, which celebrates the winter crop season and the sun god Surya. The harvests before the festival provide the food for it — roasted corn, nuts, and radishes. Children travel from door to door singing folk songs in exchange for treats and logs. At sunset, the bonfire is lit in the village square, and people sing and dance around it well into the night.
Yule – Scandinavia and Worldwide
Jól, or Yule, has its roots in ancient Germanic and Norse pagan traditions, where it venerated Odin, one of the Æsir. Today, Germanic pagans continue to celebrate by feasting, drinking, and making offerings just as their predecessors did. The holiday has also been adopted by Wiccans and some non-Germanic pagans as part of eight holidays (or Sabbats) that mark the passage of the year. Modern-day Yule celebrations frequently involve gift-giving as well.
Dōngzhì – China and Taiwan
Dōngzhì is tied to the concept of Yin and Yang. Yang represents masculine and positive, where Yin represents feminine and negative. At the winter solstice, Yin is strongest, and afterward, Yang begins to grow in strength as Yin recedes. The solstice itself marks the day of this transition, and Dōngzhì celebrates the growth to come after. On this holiday, families come together and feast, eating dumplings, wontons, and mutton, or in southern China, tangyuan and noodles.
Whether you celebrate the solstice or not, this time of year is magical. Maybe it’s the chill in the air that reminds us we’re alive. Maybe it’s just all the excitement about the holidays. But whatever it is, it seems to bring us together every year, and that’s certainly something to celebrate.
by Venn Crawford, marketing assistant at Woodruff Family Law Group