Today is the shortest day of the year in the northern hemisphere (usually celebrated on December 21st or 22nd). In the southern hemisphere, June 20th or 21st mark the winter solstice. From those days forward, the daylight hours increase and so celebrations often welcome the return of the sun.
Here are just a few celebrations from around the world.
Iranians celebrate the ancient Persian festival of Yalda on December 21st, the longest and darkest night of the year. Friends and family members gather together late into the night to tell stories and to eat nuts and fruits, especially pomegranates representing the red of the rising sun.
In June, the Incas, of what is now Peru, gathered to honor the sun as a source of light and life during Inti Raymi, Quechua for “Sun Festival.” Inti Rami marked the start of a new planting season. Although the colonial Spaniards banned the celebration, today it is one of the largest festivals of South America. Week-long festivities include processions, musical performances, mock sacrifices, and dancing.
Dongzhi, the “extreme of winter,” is an important festival in Chinese culture. Traditionally, farmers and fisherman would take the day off to celebrate the return of longer days with their families. In southern China, families get together to eat tang yuan, a sweet soup made of glutinous rice balls. In the north, people eat special dumplings to celebrate.
The Maori of New Zealand celebrate Matariki, or the first rising of the cluster of starts known as the Pleiades, in late May or early June. This signals the Maori new year when, traditionally, the dead were remembered, the harvest was celebrated, and plans were made for the planting of the new season’s crops. In modern times, flying kites, hot-air balloons, and fireworks are part of the celebration of the stars.
In Scandinavian countries, St. Lucia’s Day incorporates earlier Norse solstice traditions in the celebrations. This festival of lights features a “Light Queen” who wears a crown of lighted candles to represent the returning sun. Pagan ceremonies had involved lighting fires to ward off spirits during the longest night. Today in Swedish homes, the eldest daughter wears the candle crown and serves coffee and baked goods to her family and visitors.
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