The darkest night of the year has long inspired fear, superstition, and festivals to honor the special occurrence and its heralding of change. Many cultures around the world celebrate the winter solstice, which occurs in the northern hemisphere this year on December 21. (Technically, it occurs exactly at 10:28 am CT, when the sun is directly over the Tropic of Capricorn.)
The winter solstice marks the first day of winter and the shortest day of the year. It occurs because the earth orbits the sun at a slight tilt, which is what gives us seasons. On the winter solstice, a hemisphere is tilted as far away as possible from the sun, meaning that hemisphere experiences its least amount of sunlight that day. The sun’s arc is at its lowest, casting the year’s longest shadows at noontime, and the sun appears to rise and set in the same place – “solstice” derives from the Latin solstitium, which means “sun stands still.”
Given the unique astrological features of the solstice, a number of ancient monuments were constructed to perfectly align with the sun’s path on this day alone. The more than 5,000-year-old, mounded tomb Newgrange, in Ireland, is suddenly illuminated during the solstice by a single ray of sunlight that penetrates the gloom for seventeen minutes. In Peru’s dry south, some two thousand years ago, the Nasca people made lines in the earth by removing layers of soil. On the winter solstice, one of the lines directly aligns with the sunset. The Egyptian temple complex known as Karnak includes a shrine to the sun god that is illuminated during the winter solstice, while Machu Picchu has a stone that points right at the sun on that day.
But the ancients were not the only people to celebrate the winter solstice. Today, it remains a night of major festivities in places as widespread as China, Iran, and the United Kingdom. (Many other cultures celebrate important holidays near the solstice, such as Scandinavians on Saint Lucia Day.)
Iranians celebrate the longest night of the year with Yaldā, a festival in which people gather together and stay up past midnight reading poetry and eating nuts and fruits, specifically pomegranate and watermelon, whose red color is symbolic of dawn. The feast originates in the traditions of Zoroastrianism, a Persian religion that predates Christianity. In Zoroastrianism, the longest night of the year was a dangerous time at which evil could easily influence people’s lives. Hence, people stayed up to keep alert and sheltered amongst company to keep safe. The Zoroastrian tradition of Yaldā eventually merged with Eastern Christian celebrations of Christmas (Yaldā means “birth” and was the generic name for Christmas in Syriac) to become an especially significant holiday.
In China, the solstice is the occasion for the Dongzhi Festival, the name of which literally translates to “extreme of winter.” While not as important a holiday as the upcoming Chinese New Year, Dongzhi is still a significant celebration. Families gather to honor their ancestors and eat tangyuan, balls of sticky rice that symbolize union and togetherness. The tangyuan may be plain or stuffed, brightly colored or white, and are served in a syrup or clear broth.
Both longstanding and new celebrations of the winter solstice can be found in the United Kingdom. Pagans have gathered at Stonehenge (itself an ancient structure aligned with the solstice) in previous years to “celebrate the fact that the cycle of the world turns, and from now on the days get longer and it’s the return of the sun,” in the words of a senior druid at the 2014 gathering.
People in the southern coastal town of Brighton also rejoice in the turning of a new year, but with the distinctly secular, modern “Burning of the Clocks.” Begun in 1994 by an arts initiative called Same Sky, the festival features a parade of people carrying lanterns made out of willow canes and paper. Once the procession reaches the beach, the lanterns are burnt in a bonfire while fireworks are set off, a celebration of passage of time and a way for people to enjoy the holidays without recourse to faith-based traditions. The darkest night is illuminated and the past year is burnt away as the days again begin to get longer, and people rejoice, as they have across continents for millennia.