Winter Solstice Facts & Traditions: The Shortest Day of the Year

Sunrise at Stonehenge on the winter solstice
Sunrise at Stonehenge on the winter solstice. Photo: Mike Peel, CC-BY-SA-4.0.

The winter solstice is full of lore, with a rich history of rituals and traditions celebrated around the world. In the Northern Hemisphere, people observe the event around December 21st. However, the exact day and time varies slightly from year-to-year and depending on where you are on the globe. Here are some interesting facts and traditions about the shortest day of the year. To go to a specific section of this post, simply click the jump links in the table of contents to go to that section.

When Is the Winter Solstice?

The 2020 winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere will happen on Monday, December 21st at 2:02 am PST.

(At this time in the Southern Hemisphere, people will be celebrating the summer solstice.)

What Is the Winter Solstice?

Soltices and Sun Diagram

The Earth is on a tilt of 23.5 degrees in relation to the sun. And the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere is when the northern “tip” of the Earth is tilting the furthest away from the sun. The exact time of the solstice varies from year to year because the Earth doesn’t spin on its axis quite as precisely as our clocks tick in a 24-hour period.

The Tropic of Capricorn

The winter solstice (for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere) is also when the sun is directly overhead for a person who is at 23d 26′ 22″ latitude, or 23.4394 degrees south of the equator. This latitude is called the Tropic of Capricorn. The reason for its name is that at the time of its naming, about 2,000 years ago, the sun was entering the sign of Capricorn on the winter solstice.

Countries on the Tropic of Capricorn include Brazil, Chile, French Polynesia, Tonga, Australia, Madagascar, Botswana, and others.

Because the sun is directly overhead at the Tropic of Capricorn in the Southern Hemisphere at this time of year, it’s not directly overhead in the Northern Hemisphere. Thus, it’s darker in the north.

Earth's Axial Tilt
Relationship between Earth’s axial tilt (ε) to the tropical and polar circles. The orthographic projection was rendered from the NASA Blue Marble Next Generation. Image: NASA.

The winter solstice is described as the shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere because it’s the darkest day of the year in terms of sunlight. Some also refer to it as the longest night of the year.

The winter solstice is also the first day of winter. For astrologers, it’s the day that the sun enters the zodiac sign of Capricorn. The word “solstice” is derived from the Latin words sol, which means “sun,” and sistere, which means “to stand still.” This is because at both the winter and summer solstices, the sun appears to stand still in its path, as viewed from Earth.

Why is the winter solstice important?

What’s the big deal about the winter solstice anyway? That answer depends on whom you ask. Astronomers, neo-pagans, farmers, or someone who wants to get a great suntan will all have their own reasons. Still others of us are simply fascinated with how the Universe works, and the Earth’s place in it.

At a time when people’s access to food was totally dependent on the seasons, the solstices most likely helped them to keep track of when seasonal changes would occur. But what is clear from a historical standpoint is that people all over the world have felt the need to observe and celebrate the two extremes that take place at the winter and summer solstices.

Winter Solstice History, Traditions, Rituals, and Celebrations

If only one culture celebrated the winter solstice, it would interesting. But the fact that people around the world, from time immemorial, have been fascinated with the Earth’s movements in relation to the sun (or, as they used to think – the sun’s movements in relations to the Earth) underscores a unity of human experience.

Evidence of people celebrating the solstices dates back long before Jesus, the Buddha, or Muhammed walked the Earth, and even before the Egyptians built their pyramids in 2500 BC.

The First Known Observations of the Winter Solstice

Evidence of the first human observations of the winter solstice date back to the Neolithic period, which began about 5,000 years ago. At that time, our human ancestors were just starting to use stone tools for grinding and polishing. And sometime during this period, they started building monuments and other structures that were positioned in specific ways to the sun. Archaeologists and anthropologists believe these structures served spiritual purposes.

Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and England

Newgrange
Newgrange. Photo: Ingo Winkler.

Newgrange

On the eastern side of Ireland, just north of Dublin in County Meath, a magnificent circular stone monument was built some 5,000 years ago. Newgrange was constructed with 200,000 tons of rocks. These rocks were precisely cut and intricately engraved. In fact, the ancient structure was so well-built that it remains water-tight in rainy Ireland even to this day.

A long narrow corridor that’s nearly 60 feet long leads from the outside of Newgrange to an inner chamber. The monument is positioned in such a way that on the winter solstice sunrise, sunlight shines directly down the corridor and fills the inner chamber with light.

Winter solstice sunrise at Newgrange
Winter solstice sunrise at Newgrange. Image: Geographics.

Because the people who built this fascinating and complex structure did not yet have a written language, archaeologists and historians can only guess the reasons why they built it. But most agree that is was for the same reason modern-day people would built Notre Dame Cathedral, the Kaaba in Mecca, or even the Taj Mahal – to honor something greater than themselves.

Alban Arthan Festival

In Ireland and Wales, the festival of Alban Arthan is observed during the winter solstice with celebrations happening near Newgrange and in other locations. The name Alban Arthan can be translated in a few ways, including the “Light of the Little Bear, ” the “Light of Winter,” and sometimes loosely as the “Light of Arthur” in honor of King Arthur.

Some historians surmise the reference to the bear is one to the constellations Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, or Big Bear and Little Bear. And interestingly, to the Celts, bears were associated with kings and, in some Arthurian legends, King Arthur was said to have descended from a bear.

In essence, the Alban Arthan festival commemorates the death of the old year and the rebirth of the new, or new beginnings.

The Druids

Druid ceremony
A Druids’ Ceremony. Artist: Noël Hallé (1711–1781) National Galleries of Scotland.

The ancient pagan spiritual leaders known as the Druids were believed to have specific rituals to celebrate the concepts of death and rebirth at the time of the solstice. One way was with a mock battle between the Holly King, who rules the end of the year, or midsummer to midwinter, and the Oak King, who rules the new year, or midwinter to midsummer.

Mistletoe was also used by the Druids in rituals to honor the winter solstice. As an evergreen plant, mistletoe was symbolic of the continuum of life. In addition, it was considered to be an aphrodisiac. Hence the tradition of kissing someone under the mistletoe that is alive and well today.

Stonehenge

While it’s not as old as Newgrange, Stonehenge, located in Wiltshire in southern England, is more well-known and is also associated with the winter solstice. Like Newgrange, it was built before written history, so mysteries about it persist to this day.

Stonehenge was built as circular stone structure, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. The tallest rocks at Stonehenge are 23 feet tall and weigh more than 44 tons. It’s estimated, via carbon dating, that the first structures at Stonehenge were built over 4,000 years ago. At this time, humans were still living in the Stone Age. (The Bronze Age would be next, starting around 3000 BC.)

An Artist’s Rendering of Sunrise on the Winter Solstice at Stonehenge

Who built Stonehenge?

While the Druids clearly used Stonehenge for spiritual rituals, including during the winter solstice, they arrived on the scene thousands of years after the monument was built.
Archaeologists believe that Stonehenge was built by Celtic Britons, some of whom came from the area that is modern-day Wales – the same place where some of the stones came from. We can only surmise that their reasons for building it were similar to why ancient people built Newgrange – to honor, and even worship, something that was greater than themselves.

Scandinavia

In the northeast, ancient peoples were also celebrating the winter solstice. The early Scandinavians celebrated the shortest day of the year with a festival called Yule.

Yule

For the early Scandinavians, the winter solstice was a time to celebrate the coming of the sun, thus, they lit many fires in its honor. The ancient Scandinavians believed the god Thor would bring the return of the sun, so they burned fires in his honor.

Many of the modern-day Christmas celebrations we know today came from Yule, including the Christmas tree, the yule log, and Christmas wreaths. While we don’t burn trees, logs, and wreaths today like the Scandinavians did, we do light them up and decorate them.

In this video, Dr. Jackson Crawford, an expert on Old Norse culture, describes the celebrations Yule, which involved a lot of feasting and drinking.

In addition to the Scandinavians, early Europeans had similar celebrations for Yule, many of which persist to this day at Christmastime.

Rome

The ancient Romans also observed the winter solstice. Like the Scandinavians, the event involved a lot of eating, drinking, and partying.

Saturnalia

Celebrating Saturnalia in ancient Rome
Celebrating Saturnalia in ancient Rome. Painting: John Reinhard Weguelin, 1884.

The Romans celebrated a winter festival called Saturnalia that began on December 17th and lasted for seven days. The celebration honored Saturn, the god of farming and the harvest. Not unlike how we celebrate Halloween today, Saturnalia was a period when the ancient Romans could be someone different from who they were in their everyday lives.

One of the main themes of Saturnalia was to overturn of normal social order. Thus, activities included masters serving their slaves meals, politicians and other VIPs dressing like commoners, and women fighting in gladiator battles.

The period was also one of feasting and drinking to celebrate the harvest. December 19th was the feast of Ofalia to honor Saturn’s wife Ops, who was the goddess of the harvest. The feasting was so magnificent that a word we use today was based on Ops’ name – opulence.

This solstice-time partying continued until Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in the 4th century, when religious fundamentalists tried to tone things down. But eventually, Romans began to celebrate Saturnalia once again.

Christianity and the Winter Solstice

As Christianity spread through Ireland, Britain, Scandinavia, and the Roman Empire from the 1st to the 11th centuries, the clergy co-opted pagan holidays, including the winter solstice, to become Christian holidays.

For instance, the winter solstice on the 21st was close to another celebration, the birth of Mithra, on December 25. Mithra was the Persian god of light. The Romans also honored their own god of light on the 25th – Sol Invictus, which means “unconquered sun.” Many historians believe the Roman Catholic Church adopted this day to honor the birth of Jesus to bring more pagans into the Christian fold.

Similarly, some historians believe the Scandinavian festival of lights, St. Lucia’s Day, which is December 13th, was also inspired by pagan celebrations of the winter solstice. St. Lucia was a Christian martyr who was killed by the Romans in the year 304, at a time when many Romans were still weary of Christianity.

Middle East

Yaldā Night feast
Yaldā Night feast. Photo: Reza Abdollahi.

In Iran, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, and Armenia, locals celebrate the festival Yaldā Night, or Chelleh Night, to honor the solstice and the longest night of the year.

People believed that dark spirits walked the night. So, they would stay up all night visiting, reading poetry, and feasting to keep the evil spirits away. This tradition continues to today. The celebration also honors Mirtha, the god of sunlight.

The 13th century Iranian poet Saadi wrote about the evening in his book Bustan: “The true morning will not come until the Yalda night is gone.”

Asia

In China, Japan, North and South Korea, and Vietnam, people celebrate the winter solstice with the Dōngzhì Festival, which translates roughly to “winter arrives.”

Dōngzhì Festival

The Dōngzhì Festival marks the coming of more sunlight, which brings strength and positive energy. Locals get together with their families and eat rice balls, dumplings, and other treats to celebrate the season.

In Japan, locals calls the winter solstice Toji. Just as the Scandinavians lit fires to welcome the coming of the sun, the Japanese light fires, including some on Mt. Fuji, to honor the occasion. Toji is a period to welcome good luck and health for the new year. The Japanese eat citrus fruits and kabocha squash to celebrate the season.

Maya People

For the ancient Mayas, the winter solstice is a day to celebrate renewals. Beyond the birth of a new solar year, the winter solstice was a reset of the celestial clock. This could mean a shift in human consciousness.

On the winter solstice at the El Castillo temple at Chichen Itza, sunlight appears to ascend the steps of the temple all the way to the sky. The sunlight illuminates the temple’s southern and western sides, as the northern and eastern sides are completely dark.

The Incan Empire

For the ancient Incas, the winter solstice was a sacred event. It was a day to honor the sun god, Inti, when he was furthest from the Earth and to entice him to return. They marked the solstice with a festival called Inti Raymi, or the sun festival.

Inti Raymi

They Incas fasted for three days before the solstice. On the day of the solstice, they would march in a procession to a ceremonial plaza. Once there, they would await the sunrise. As the sun rose, the Incas bowed down and offered cups of chicha, which was a sacred beer made from fermented corn. The Incas also sacrificed animals, including lamas, to honor Inti.

The Aztecs

For the Aztecs, thew winter solstice was a time to honor their god Huitzilopochtli, who the god of the sun and warfare.

The Aztecs had specific rituals to honor the event. Temple maidens would bake a life-sized figure of Huitzilopochtli with amaranth dough and toasted maize, which they called the tzoalli.

Holy men would then carry the tzoalli in a sacred procession to the Great Temple. Locals also baked hundreds of amaranth “bones,” which they included with the tzoalli. Not unlike how communion wafers represent the body of Christ for Catholics, for the Aztecs, the amaranth bread symbolized the flesh and bones of Huitzilopochtli. By eating it, they became one with their god.

The Aztecs would eat pieces of the tzoalli and amaranth bones without drinking water in a ritual called netehuatzaliztli, which translates to “people drying themselves out”. They believed the process would strengthen the power of the sun.

But the Aztecs didn’t just celebrate the solstice by eating bread without water. In true Aztec fashion, they also battled and sacrificed human beings.

Native America

Woodhenge

Diagram of Cahokia mounds.
Diagram of solstice and equinox sunset and sunrise positions at the location of Mound 72 and Mound 96. Cahokia Mounds near Collinsville, Illinois. Image: Heironymous Rowe.

Like other cultures in the Northern Hemisphere, the Native Americans built structures in homage to the winter solstice. One of the more known set of structures they erected was at Cahokia. It’s located on a spot near the Mississippi River in what is now Fairmont, Illinois.

The structures the Native Americans built at Cahokia are somewhat similar to those built by the Aztecs in Mexico over a thousand years ago. Archaeologists called one of the structures “Woodhenge” because it reminded them of the structures at Stonehenge. Like the ancient Britons built Stonehenge, the Native Americans built Woodhenge in reference to the sun. Different temple mounds align with the sun’s rays on the winter and summer solstices.

The Indigenous People of Cahokia venerated the sun as a god just as the ancient people of Mesoamerica did. Archaeologists believed the people of Cahokia held religious rituals to honor the sun as a giver of life and to pray for a bountiful agricultural year.

A Time for Storytelling

Native American teepee in wintertime.Native Americans were busy during the spring, summer, and fall growing, gathering, and hunting for food. And many animals were in hibernation during the wintertime. Thus, winter was a time to get together and tell stories, as well as to teach their children around the fire during dark and cold winter nights.

Native Americans revered their storytellers, who were the sources of knowledge, wisdom, and entertainment in their culture. It was customary in many tribes to offer a gift to the storyteller, such as tobacco.

Sacred Traditions

While not all tribes ritualized the winter solstice, most tracked astronomical events. For those who did celebrate the winter solstice, it was a sacred event. For the Acoma People of New Mexico, the winter solstice is the beginning of their New Year. The Blackfeet of Montana honored the occasion by turning their teepees to face the rising sun. They also held dances and still do to this day.

The Zuni of New Mexico have a multi-day solstice celebration they call the Shalako festival. As part of the ceremony, six Zuni men will pray for rain to all the corners of the Earth. They will also pray for blessings and balance for the coming agricultural year. The Zuni pray not just for their own tribe, but for the entire world.

How to Celebrate the Winter Solstice

Perhaps without realizing it, many of us celebrate the winter solstice with Christmas, Hanukkah, and New Year’s traditions. What is universal is that the darkest day of the year is a time to celebrate the light and new beginnings.

Setting intentions for what you want to see happen in the next year for yourself personally, for your family, friends, and community, as well as the global community is a great way to honor the occasion. And, as so many ancient cultures have taught us, it’s also the perfect occasion to have a really good time.

What do you eat on winter solstice?

Winter produce, warm meals, and holiday goodies are the perfect foods to eat during the winter solstice. For some recipes based on traditional food, visit UniGuide’s post on Winter Solstice Recipes.

Previous articleWhat makes those surfable waves so big? An oceanographer explains.
Next articleHow Changing What Our Clothes Are Made of Fights Climate Change
Hello. My name is Kristen and I'm the founder of UniGuide. You can read more about my background here.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here