The Surprising Traditions Behind the Winter Solstice

Kathryn Wilkinson ‘20
EE Science and Tech Editor

The darkest day of the year is approaching: December 21st, 2018. This annual astronomical phenomenon, known as the winter solstice, produces a day with the least amount of sunlight, and the longest night of the year. On this day, one of the Earth’s poles experiences it maximum tilt away from the sun. On December 21st, at exactly 5:23 PM, the time when we will experience the solstice, the north pole will be tilted away from the sun. This happens twice a year, one time in each pole.

The significance of this event is observed by various cultures. Ultimately marking the beginning of shortening nights and lengthening days, it is celebrated differently in each country. It was first recognized by the Pagans thousands of years ago, and has direct ties to the Christmas traditions of today. An emperor by the name of Aurelian established December 25th as the birthday of the “Invincible Sun” during his reign. This was part of the Roman Winter Solstice festivities, also known as Yule. However, in 273, the Christian Church recognized this day as the birth of Jesus, therefore Christianizing the celebration.

The traditions of the Pagans, before the holiday was Christianized, resembles the modern day celebrations of Christmas. To celebrate Yule, Pagans held large feasts and festivities that lasted over the course of many days. They adorned their home in sacred colors, the Druidic holiday colors of green, red, and white. Another large part of Pagan culture was exchanging gifts.

Other cultures today also recognize the ancient Pagan rituals in their festivities of the winter solstice in the present. St. Lucia Day in Scandinavia falls on December 13th every year, which was the day of the solstice on the old calendars. Marking the beginning of the Christmas season is a large procession of young women adorned in white robes, red sashes, and wreaths. It is their way of honoring St. Lucy, and includes ancient pagan elements such as bonfires. Foods such as gingersnaps and glogg are associated with the winter solstice celebrations in Scandinavia.

Though unrelated to Pagan rituals, the people of Dong Zhi, China, also honor a festival for the winter solstice that has been carried out for thousands of years. It is marked by large family gatherings and meals of traditional foods such as tang yuan, rice balls. In ancient Chinese culture, the solstice marked the end of the harvest season. This also relates to the concept of yin and yang, due to the darkness of winter being balanced by the coming light of the sun.

The people of Japan recognize the winter solstice in a celebration called Toji. During Toji, people eat a winter squash called kabocha and bathe in a hot bath infused with yuzu citrus fruit, which is believed to ward off illness, refresh the body and mind, and soothe dry and irritated skin caused by the cold weather. Zoos in Japan have also adopted the tradition of yuzu citrus baths. As a result, they have discovered that capybaras, an animal in the rodent family, love to soak in these hot baths every time the winter solstice arrives.

Often an overlooked event in the United States, other cultures honor and celebrate the winter solstice in a variety of ways. From processions to traditional foods, the solstice not only brings darkness, but brighter days of celebration and tradition.

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