Each December, in many countries and cultures across the Northern Hemisphere, people celebrate the return of the light. Many of these celebrations occur close to the time of the winter solstice, the shortest day and longest night of the year. We celebrate the solstice to acknowledge the turning of the year and the lengthening of the days ahead and as a time to reflect and rekindle our inner light, dimmed, perhaps, by the distress of this year.
Who needs a reminder of what a year it has been! Covid-19, unemployment, racial injustice, wildfires, and smoke. Not to mention feverish election activity. As the light of civility and tolerance dimmed, it has seemed as though the darkness was gaining the upper hand, compounded by the shortening of days in November.
The sun knows better. It always comes back.
Celebrating the Solstice Around the World
The solstice occurs when the earth is at maximum tilt away from the sun, and the sun travels its shortest path through the sky, which usually occurs on December 21 or 22.
In the summer months, we almost take our sun-filled light for granted. But in the darkness of winter, sun sightings are especially appreciated.
For thousands of years, people in the northern hemisphere have honored the return of the sun. In ancient agricultural worlds, life depended on it; without the sun, crops wouldn’t grow and people would starve. Many cultures and religions worldwide created traditions to honor the sun and its rebirth into life through the dark.
In Northern Pakistan, the Kalash Kafir people hold a seven-day celebration of the solstice called Chaomos. The week includes ritual bathing, torchlight parades, fires, singing, dancing, and festive eating. Sounds like a great time.
In China, Korea, and Japan, many celebrate the festival of Dongzhi, a word that means “the arrival of winter.” People gather in their families to worship the heavens and honor their ancestors, while eating special foods such as dumplings in Northern China and tang yuan, a dessert of glutinous rice balls, in the south.
In Iran, the festival of Shab-e Yalda occurs at the longest night of the year. Shab-e Yalda extols the victory of Mithra, god of the sun, over the forces of darkness. People gather, burn fires, offer wishes, make acts of charity, and serve festive foods, including Iran’s native nuts and pomegranates. The words of the great Persian poet Hafiz are often read. Some celebrants stay up until dawn to welcome the sun’s rising, a sign that goodness has triumphed over evil.
In the United States, the Native American Zuni people celebrate Shalako with rites that invite the sun’s return and the transformation of winter into spring. The nine-day sacred ceremony, private to the tribe, includes dance, song, ritual, and drama. The Zunis believe their ceremonies are not just for the well-being of the tribe, but the entire world.
On December 22 in Japan, bonfires burn on Mount Fuji. Farmers celebrate the return of the sun that will nourish their crops. People eat kabocha squash and enjoy hot baths, accented with yuzu, a citrus fruit said to be good for health.
The pre-Christian Norse people celebrated Yule, their name for the solstice. When King Haakon I brought his Christian faith to Norway in the 10th century, he blended many of the old traditions into Christianity. The Yule log and mistletoe, as well as “The Twelve Days of Christmas” were originally Nordic rituals. Who knew that the “Boar’s Head Carol,” sung at Christmastime, referred to the ancient practice of sacrificing a sacred boar?
The Vikings revered the evergreen tree as a symbol of continuing life and decorated it at Yuletide. They passed down the ritual of decorating a tree to their German descendants. The Christmas tree didn’t arrive in England until 1800 when German-born Queen Charlotte decorated a yew tree at Windsor Castle. After Queen Victoria declared she had to have a Christmas spruce in 1840, the custom of decorating a tree at home spread across England.
Some say the Christians “stole” Yule, while others say that our gift-giving rituals evolved out of the ancient Roman feast of Saturnalia celebrated at the solstice. Let’s agree that cultures regularly borrow from each other. That means that we can be free to learn from different traditions and to create rituals meaningful for us.
At One with Nature
Beyond the good cheer, celebrating solstice connects us with nature’s rhythms and cycles, sometimes forgotten in contemporary life. Too often, the borders between day and night blur as the Internet gives us options for working, learning, and buying at any time of the day or night. Many corporate skyscrapers keep lights on 24-7. Even fashion has forgotten the seasons, telling us we can wear the same clothes most of the year.
This year, the pandemic blurred our calendars even more. March seemed to roll into September with a brief pit stop for summer. For those of us working at home, the days rolled together, and Monday, Thursday, or Saturday began to feel the same.
By celebrating the returning light, we honor the natural world’s rhythms, set in motion by the cycling sun. It’s never too late to send our best appreciation to nature.
Shaping a Celebration
If you want to celebrate, look for opportunities within your traditions. Can you add a pinch of reflection and gratitude for the light into what you already do? At Hannukah, a celebration with special meanings apart from the solstice, the lighting of the menorah offers a moment for remembrance and reflection. At Kwanzaa, a few days after the solstice, lighting the seven candles on the kinara (candleholder) provides a moment for silence and appreciation. In preparing for Christmas, why not take a moment to pause and think about the meanings the ancestors gave to the lights and the tree.
Solstice food can add to any celebration. Make a batch of yummy Swedish saffron buns, the sweet Lussekatter? Or cook some Cuccia, a delicious Sicilian wheatberry and ricotta porridge, traditionally made for the Feast of Saint Lucia. Persian Ajil, a mixture of nuts, seeds, and fruit might be perfect for a party. Or, if adventurous, try cooking the Chinese dumplings served at Dongzhi.
Create Your Ritual
Rituals bring intention and reflection into everyday life. Solstice rituals offer moments for silence, stillness, and appreciation for nature, as we bless both the darkness and light. A few ideas:
- Decorate your space with lights, candles, and boughs of green, while appreciating the continuity of life.
- Prepare a celebratory bonfire (with safety in mind).
- Reflect on the year’s highlights, as well as events and memories you’d prefer to leave behind. Write what you’re ready to release on a slip of paper and offer it to the fire or candle. (Making sure the flames are safe.)
- Before you honor the returning light, take a moment in darkness. Friends of mine, as they light candles and then turn back on their lights, love to sing, “Here Comes the Sun.”
- Eat festive foods that nourish and delight you.
- Share your sense of abundance, not just with those closest to you but where gifts are not expected.
This December, we don’t have to worry whether the sun will return. Every year it does.
“Sun, sun, sun, here it comes..”
Sally Fox, owner of Engaging Presence, is a coach and writer who helps individuals develop and craft compelling stories. She writes about following your creative calling after midlife. Find her blog at www.engagingpresence.com and listen to her podcasts at www.3rdActMagazine.com.