Snow Covered Trees with the Sun shining through

Anthropology: Discovering The Special Winter Solstice Traditions Around The World

Winter (especially the month of December) is a time we associate with the arrival of the holidays, but countries all around the world celebrate special winter solstice traditions. But it’s not just about Christmas and the festival of Hanukkah. With the long nights of winter approaching, a little inspiration can go a long way toward brightening our days. Thankfully, countries across the globe have come up with plenty of fun, intriguing, and unique ways of celebrating the season’s dog days. That is not only inspiring but also downright delightful. Many of them are centuries-old festivities while others are relatively new, yet all of them provide a bit of possibility. And, at times, a touch of laughter in a year where those things are exceedingly hard to come by.

Just when you think December has enough to celebrate between Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and the impending New Year. There’s yet another reason to gather with your loved ones and celebrate: the winter solstice. You might be more familiar with the winter solstice as the day with the shortest amount of sunlight and the longest night of the year. But, around the world, many cultures still celebrate the longest night of the year with unique winter solstice traditions.

Winter Solstice Traditions in St. Lucia Day, Scandinavia

St. Lucia Day Celebration in Scandinavia
St. Lucia Day Celebration in Scandinavia/ Photo: Bms

The Swedish celebration of the Winter Solstice, also known as St. Lucia Day or the Feast of Saint Lucy, takes place every year on December 13.  Like many days we celebrate, ancient festivals observing the winter solstice merge with newer traditions to create the holiday season as we know it today. In Scandinavia, St. Lucia Day on December 13 (the solstice in the old calendar) marks the start of the Christmas season. Specifically with a procession of young women in white robes, red sashes, and wreaths of candles on their heads, lighting their way through the darkness of winter.

The date marked a pagan festival of lights in honour of the shortest and darkest day of the year. There are beliefs that say that demons and spirits would plague the earth and animals could talk (not unlike early celebrations of Halloween). The threshing and slaughtering are to be done, as people brace themselves for the start of winter. Specifically, honouring St. Lucy, this festival incorporated pagan winter solstice celebrations marked by bonfires. Delicious treats like gingersnaps, saffron-flavoured buns, and glogg are also part of serving as a part of the tradition.

The modern tradition of observance began in the 1700s. It involves the eldest daughter in a family dressing up as a Lucia in a white dress with a red sash, and wears a wreath of candles on her head (today, electric candles are often put to use).

With time and the spread of Christianity, however, the Swedish winter solstice became enmeshed with the figure of Saint Lucia, and December 13th became a celebration in her honour–complete with costumes, music, processions, and glögg.

Winter Solstice Traditions in Dong Zhi, China

In the Western calendar, the Winter Solstice falls on December 21 or December 22, when the night is longest and the day is shortest in the northern hemisphere.

The Dongzhi Festival is a traditional holiday that is a celebration by some that have a long history and certain customs.

This thousands-of-years-old festival on December 21, 22, or 23 is a celebration with family gatherings. And a big meal, including rice balls, called tang yuan. The Dong Zhi festival is a celebration to mark the end of the harvest season. The holiday also has roots in the Chinese concept of yin and yang. After the solstice, the abundance of darkness in winter will begin to be balanced with the light of the sun.

The festival has been celebrated for over 2,000 years and usually revolves around the practice of families coming together to make and eat tangyuan (glutinous rice balls). Tang Yuan  are symbols of reunion and prosperity. While the solstice celebration is only one day, the Dongzhi Festival in fact lasts 15 days.

In Chinese, Dongzhi roughly translates to ‘winter’s extreme’ or ‘winter’s arrival’. The festival celebrates the start of winter, with the date marking the turning point in the calendar where the days that follow start to get longer as the nights get shorter.

Regional Customs

In past imperial eras, the Winter Solstice Festival was more important, but now it remains a relatively important festival only in Taiwan. In some regions of China, some families still gather together to eat a special meal, visit ancestral tombs, and worship their ancestors on this day.

Northern China Customs

In northern China, where it can get bitterly cold, the people lack sufficient warm clothing and adequate heating, so they eat hot food and drink hot liquids to stay warm. People believed that when the days were short, there was insufficient Yang energy, and they tried to eat high Yang foods according to Chinese medicinal cuisine principles.

Historically, on Dongzhi day, people went to the clan tombs to offer food and drink to their ancestor’s spirits, clean the tombs, and work to maintain them. Then they have a gathering in the evening afterwards for hot dumplings and drinks. Some northern Chinese still follow this tradition.

Jiaozi

Jiaozi dumplings (饺子 jiǎozi /jyaoww-dzuh/)
Jiaozi dumplings (饺子 jiǎozi /jyaoww-dzuh/)/Photo: ChinaExpediations

People eat fatty dumplings that contain meat and high Yang warming herbs such as ginger and garlic. This helps people stave off illness and disease and stay warm. It helps them adapt to the onset of winter and buoys their mood during the darkest days of the year.

Eating steaming hot dumplings with friends or family and eating food with special high-yang herbs and spices is still a custom in northern China on the day of the winter solstice.

Southern China Customs

Some people in southern China and some Chinese in communities in Southeast Asia gather together to make and eat a meal of tangyuan (汤圆 Tāngyuán /tung-ywen/). Tangyuan symbolizes family unity and prosperity.

These are especially balls of rice that might have a filling of bean paste or meat with sweet high yang herbs which are cooked. These are usually pink or white-coloured. Tangyuan is often served in a bowl with a sweet soup or broth.

With their meal of tangyuan, they may also drink a mild rice wine that might contain cassia oil. Cassia is a herb that is high in yang and is one of China’s Top 10 Favorite Herbs and Spices.

Taiwanese Winter Solstice Traditions

Tang Yuan

Tang Yuan ( Glutinous Rice Balls with Red Bean paste filling)
Tang Yuan ( Glutinous Rice Balls with Red Bean paste filling/ Photo: Medium

For many Taiwanese and people of Taiwanese descent in other countries, the festival is still important. Families will go to the ancestral tombs and have meals of tangyuan, and they might offer tangyuan to the spirits at the tombs.

They also have a custom of offering nine-layer cakes to their ancestors. The cakes are made of rice flour and are given shapes like animals such as chickens, ducks, tortoises, pigs, cows, and sheep.

According to traditional Chinese medical concepts, winter is the time of year. It is important for many reasons. Mainly, to rest, relax and nourish the body with high yang fatty foods.

The Chinese follow the behaviour of animals that hibernate during winter to rejuvenate and preserve their bodies. So they rest on the day if they can, eat foods containing ginger, and enjoy ginseng. As well as similar high yang herbs that can restore and relax the nerves and alleviate stress.

Origin and History of the Dongzhi Festival

The Winter Solstice Festival has its origins in the Chinese concept of yin and yang, an ancient symbol of harmony and balance. In Chinese culture, there is a belief that when the days are short, there is the presence of insufficient yang energy. That is why, during Dongzhi, there is the consumption of food corresponding to energy. Mainly, that means foods having more yang (warm) are for consumption. In order to counteract the yin (cold) of winter, such as tangyuan. Whereas the other popular dishes during this time include mutton hotpot, babao porridge (also called eight-treasure porridge), and jiaozi (dumplings).

The winter solstice is a cause of celebration throughout history by a variety of cultures. In China, it is known as Dongzhi. Specifically, over 2,500 years ago, a wise man with the name Zhou Fong discovered it. While using a sundial led to the discovery. The Winter Solstice Festival is held as early as the spring and autumn seasons.

Today, it is one of the most significant Chinese festivals. There’s even a saying in Chinese tradition to mark this festival. It says that the Winter Solstice is more important than the Lunar New Year!

Though prominently a celebration during the Han Dynasty. But it was also during the Tang (618 – 907 AD) and Song Dynasty (960 – 1279 AD). This led to its prosperity. Officials enjoy 7-day holidays and ordinary people reunite with family members at home. Mainly to worship the gods and their ancestors, and pay respect to their ancestors. It is also the Changzhi Festival or Yashui.

Winter Solstice Traditions in Iran( Shab-e Yalda)

The feast of Shab-e Yalda
The feast of Shab-e Yalda/ Photo: NataKallam

This ancient Persian festival, like many winter solstice holidays, celebrates the end of shorter days around the 21st of December. Moreover, it also celebrates the victory of light over darkness. Specifically, meaning “birth,” Yalda is marked by family gatherings, candles (originally, fires lit all night). Specifically, poetry readings from Divan-e-Hafiz (Fal-e Hafiz) where family members make a wish and randomly select passages and the eldest members are given the honour of reading the poems. Additionally, a feast to get through the longest night of the year.

In particular, nuts and fruits, including watermelon and pomegranates, are traditionally eaten—legend has it that eating the fruits of summer will protect you from illness in winter. There is a special significance of watermelon, as some believe the shape represents the sun and eating it will ward off illnesses brought on by winter weather. The bright red colour of the pomegranate seeds symbolizes the glow of life.

“Yalda means birth and it refers to the birth of Mitra; the mythological goddess of light. Since days get longer and nights to get shorter in winter, Iranians celebrate the last night of autumn as the renewal of the sun and the victory of light over darkness. ”

Winter Solstice Lantern Festival, Vancouver

The Winter Solstice Lantern Festival in Vancouver, Canada
The Winter Solstice Lantern Festival in Vancouver, Canada/ Photo: Narcity

To honour the many cultural traditions that celebrate the winter solstice, Vancouver’s Secret Lantern Society created the city’s Solstice Lantern Festival. Specifically, participants can attend workshops to create their lanterns. Then, on the night of the solstice, processions march throughout the city, culminating in fire performances. Moreover, attendees can also try to find their way through the Labyrinth of Light. Specifically, a maze of 600 candles invites visitors to let go of old thoughts and find new possibilities for the coming year.

Vancouver’s Winter Solstice Lantern Festival involves evening music and fire performances on December 21st. Mainly at the Yaletown Roundhouse and Granville Island.

Some years, activities also take place at Dr Sun Yat-Sen Garden in Chinatown.

In 2019, the 26th Annual Winter Solstice Lantern Festival will take place on Saturday, December 21st. In 2020, because of the COVID-19 pandemic and government orders banning live events, the festival took place online instead of at its usual venues. Whereas in the year 2021, there is to be a mix of online and in-person activities on Tuesday, December 21st. The ones taking place in person are smaller in scale than they would normally be pre-pandemic.

 WinterSolstice Traditions in Toji, Japan

Winter Solstice Tradition Celebration in Toji,Japan
Winter Solstice Tradition Celebration in Toji,Japan/ Photo: GetyourGuide

Around December 20-23 each year, the North Pole tilts its furthest from the sun, bringing the shortest day and longest night of the year. This year it’s December 21. On this winter day, Japanese people will observe and celebrate tōji, the winter solstice.

The winter solstice in Japan, called Toji, has a few interesting customs associated with it. Traditionally, a winter squash famously with the name kabocha is eaten, one of only a few crops that are available. There is a belief that a hot bath with yuzu citrus fruits refreshes your body and spirit and wards off illness. As well as soothe dry winter skin. And apparently, rodents called capybaras love yuzu baths as well. It’s become popular for Japanese zoos to throw fruit into the warm waters. Especially in the water that the animals soak in on the winter solstice.

Conclusion

All around the world , the winter solstice holds a religious significance that transforms itself into a winter solstice tradition. In every corner of the world, the winter solstice traditions are a source of celebration, family gatherings and delectable feasts. Even the food encompassing the feast holds a special connection to the festival. What is your favorite winter solstice tradition or perhaps you have your own? Let me know in the comment section!

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