Dec. 22, 2019, is the winter solstice, when Earth’s northern hemisphere has its maximum tilt away from the sun. This natural cycle marks the north’s shortest day, longest night and the start of winter. Simultaneously, the summer solstice occurs in the southern hemisphere producing its longest day and shortest night.
In ancient times, many cultures celebrated the solstice on the longest night of the year, when the days started to get longer and nights shorter.
In Asia, likely since the second millennium BCE (2,000 to 1,000 years Before the Common Era) and historically recorded since the 5th century BCE, Zoroastrianism was a pre-Islamic religion in Persian empires recorded for more than a thousand years from around 600 BCE to 650 CE. People stayed awake on the longest night of winter solstice to deter evil forces. People gathered with friends and family to be safe, feast and entertain themselves in good company. The next day, the start of the Dae month became a day of celebration.
Another celebration of the winter soltice, called Yalda, has been practiced since ancient times by the Persians (now called Iranians). Yalda night or Shab-e Yalda marks the last day of the ninth Persian month Azar and the start of the tenth month Dae in the current civil Iranian calendar. Considered a victory of light over dark, solstice Yalda is deemed the birthday of the legendary sun god, Mitra. Modern Persians still gather to celebrate with special foods, feasts, music, dancing and poetry reading (especially the works of Divan-e Hafez). Some stay up all night to welcome the sunrise. In 2008, Shab-e Yalda was officially put on Iran’s National Treasures list.
Dating from the Han Dynasty (202 BCE to 220 CE), one of the earliest recorded winter solstice celebrations is the Chinese Dongzhi, which literally translates as “winter extreme.” The holiday is based on the Chinese celestial calendar and occurs between Dec. 21 and 23 on the globally accepted modern Gregorian calendar. Astute and practical China now uses both calendars simultaneously. Originally an end-of-harvest festival, on Dongzhi Chinese families and friends get together for dinners, special foods and festivities similar to western winter festivities. East Asian calendars are divided into 24 solar terms rather than the 12 months of the Gregorian calendar. The 22nd period marking the winter solstice is called Dongzhi in China, Toji or Dongii in other Asian cultures and Dong chi in Vietnam.
Pre-Christian ancient Romans celebrated Saturnalia, dedicated to their sun god, Saturn, on Dec. 17 and extended the festivities through solstice to Dec. 23 on the Julian calendar. Saturnalia marked the end of the planting and growing season. Romans held games, feasts and gift-giving and even let their slaves have a brief holiday from work. The temple of Saturn is among the ruins of the forum in Rome, the capital of Italy. Christianity was legalized in the Roman Empire in 313 CE by the Edict of Milan by Emperors Constantine the Great and Licinius.
Because Peru is in the southern hemisphere, its winter solstice occurs around June 21 to 23 every year. Inti Raymi — an ancient Inca solstice celebration — honors the sun god Inti. Modern Peruvians have revived the festivities; however they have excluded the previous practice of live sacrifices. After the brutal Spanish conquest and subjugation, the banned Inti Raymi celebration was mingled into European Christianity and focused more on religion, tradition, family and feasting.
The Hopi Nation of northern Arizona and other descendants of the ancestral Puebloans celebrate the spiritual aspect of the winter solstice with dances, purification rituals, ceremonies and — in modern times — gift giving. Today’s Hopi call their ancestors “Hisatsinom,” which translates to “People of long ago.” Prayer sticks and Kachina dolls are made and decorated for use in the solstice celebrations. The Hopi people welcome Kachina — mythical protective spirits — from the mountains at winter solstice time.
The early Norse of Scandinavia in Northern Europe (800 CE to 1050 CE, with an approximate timespan of the Viking Age to 1220 CE) lit fires on the longest night during winter solstice to ward off spirits. Modern Scandinavians combine winter solstice with the Christian Saint Lucia day, when girls traditionally wear white robes with red sashes and a wreath with lit candles on their heads to honor the martyr. LED battery powered candles, used nowadays, are much safer
Even scientists and support staff at the 75 Antarctic research stations run by 30 countries celebrate the southern winter solstice at the same time as the northern summer solstice — around June 21 to 23 annually. Special dinners and drinks and minimal homemade small gift swapping occur. Living conditions are always practical and spartan in Antarctica’s research stations. The sun never rises for a few days around winter solstice time. The Antarctic winter is a long, cold season.
Globally, winter solstice is a natural and important astronomical event. It is good to know a little history and how other cultures celebrate the start of longer days.
Although Mark Twain’s 1869 book “The Innocents Abroad” refers to the benefits of travel, I adapt his quote to say knowledge and “travel (are) fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
May you have a great winter holiday season.
Jane Weber is a professional gardener and consultant. Semi-retired, she grows thousands of native plants. Contact her at email@example.com or phone 352-249-6899.