The winter solstice will occur on December 21st, 2020. At this point, the northern hemisphere is tipped away from the sun at the furthest point in our annual orbit. For many of us, it will be a dark and cold day of the year.
For others, it’s a time of celebration, to mark the beginning of winter or eventual return of the sun – or both. We’ve collected some of the most interesting winter solstice festivals and celebrations around the world in this post. While many of them are cultural celebrations rather than specific events you can attend, you can learn more about the winter solstice and what it means to people across the globe.
Similar to our round-up of summer solstice celebrations, these events are each unique, and share as much about the people who celebrate them as the history and place where they occur. Read on to learn about the interesting ways we celebrate the shortest day of the year through nine fascinating winter solstice festivals and celebrations.
Note: We tried to find summer solstice celebrations in the southern hemisphere to include in this post, but weren’t able to find any. If you know of a summer solstice celebration in the southern hemisphere, let us know!
This post was originally published in November 2018, and was most recently updated in November 2020.
Winter Solstice Celebrations & Festivals
In some parts of the world, there are winter solstice festivals that are open to the public. These are rooted in history and ancient religions, and bring together communities to experience the return of sunlight together. Check out four interesting winter solstice celebrations around the world detailed below.
Donore, Ireland – Winter Solstice at Newgrange
The winter solstice celebrations at Newgrange in Ireland are among the most difficult to attend in the world. The winter solstice is a surprisingly popular winter solstice experience: over 28,000 people applied for the lottery in 2018. Additionally, only 60 people are able to enter each year for the winter solstice celebration. Your chances of being drawn are roughly 1/471, which is certainly better than a lottery ticket… but not by much!
What makes Newgrange so special for marking the winter solstice? Newgrange is a Neolithic ancient temple constructed around 3200 BC, making it older than the pyramids in Giza (which made the list for great summer solstice experiences) or Stonehenge in England.
It was likely used as a religious site and possibly as a burial mound; on the winter solstice, it also offers a particularly unique experience. On the days surrounding the winter solstice, Newgrange is aligned perfectly that the inner chamber fills with light. This light passes through the ‘roof box,’ an opening designed specifically for this purpose.
Given what we know about Neolithic societies in Ireland, archaeologists believe that Newgrange may have been used to celebrate the end of the longest winter night and signify the victory of life over death.
There’s a lottery each year for spots at the annual winter solstice event. For a chance to attend the winter solstice at Newgrange next year, you can apply on the Newgrange website.
Stonehenge, England, U.K. – Winter Sunrise
Stonehenge in southern England is the only place that makes our lists for both winter and summer solstice celebrations. In fact, Stonehenge is constructed with such great attention to the movements of the sun throughout the year. Sunlight and the solstices were vitally important to Neolithic societies since they marked the passage of time and changes in the seasons.
On the winter solstice at Stonehenge, the sun would have set between the uprights of the tallest archway structure (officially called a trilithon) but this structure no longer stands; you can see an artists’ representation of that here.
Additionally, archaeologists have found evidence that Stonehenge may have been more important at the winter solstice than in the summer. This is surprising given the modern popularity of the summer solstice celebration there. Neolithic peoples may have congregated at Stonehenge to celebrate with feasts to mark the shortest day of the year and subsequent return of sunlight.
Today, thousands of pagans and druids celebrate the Winter Solstice at Stonehenge. You can plan a trip on this short day, but you certainly won’t be alone!
Due to the pandemic, there will be no 2020 winter solstice event at Stonehenge, but you can plan for one in 2021 – information is usually shared on the website. Learn more about visiting Stonehenge (at any time of year) on the English Heritage website.
Vancouver, British Columbia – Lantern Festival
Residents of Vancouver, BC, Canada mark the winter solstice each year with a lantern festival on the darkest day of the year. Now in its 27th year, the Secret Lantern Society organizes this event at several locations around Vancouver. This event is not meant to celebrate or honor any specific religion or beliefs about the winter solstice, but rather to allow people to gather and mark the passage of the seasons and return of the sun.
Depending on which location you attend, you may see processions, light and fire shows, and singing and drumming. You can also make a lantern if you haven’t brought one with you.
Chapel Hill, North Carolina – Spiral of Light
Chapel Hill might seem an unlikely place for a winter solstice festival. In fact, it offers a truly unique one, hosted by the Eco-Institute at Pickard’s Mountain. The Eco-Institute is focused on “Healing the Human-Earth Relationship” and each year, they set up a special event to mark the return of sunlight to the northern hemisphere.
The Spiral of Light is a community event where attendees take a meditative walk and light their candle from within a spiral of evergreen boughs and candles. They then return from the center of the spiral, adding it to the end of the spiral and helping it grow. This ceremony helps bring light into the darkness, and symbolizes the light change on a global scale.
Learn more about the Spiral of Light celebration and its meanings on the Eco-Institute website.
Unique Cultural Celebrations of the Winter Solstice
Throughout the world, people celebrate the winter solstice in a variety of ways. In the sections below, we have detailed some of these unique winter solstice celebrations. In some cases, we have simplified the details, but in general, the themes of community, good health, and the return of sunlight are obvious patterns in every celebration of the winter solstice.
Japan – Tōji with Yuzuyu
In Japan, the shortest day of the year is called Tōji. Many Japanese people will participate in specific events to mark Tōji on the Winter Solstice, as it begins the winter season and colder weather that follows.
Yuzuyu is One of the most popular Tōji activities; it’s a bath with yuzu fruit. Yuzu is an aromatic Asian citrus fruit that tastes similar to grapefruit. In cooking, yuzu is a garnish or flavor more than an ingredient. Yuzu is also thought to have cleansing properties and symbolizes good luck.
On Tōji, some Japanese will draw a hot bath and add several whole yuzus to the bath, allowing them to soak in the water and the whole bath to become aromatic. It’s thought that this bath helps fight illness and ward off evil spirits. Similarly, it’s common to visit the Onsen (Japanese spas) for Tōji, as they promote good health.
Southwestern U.S. – Soyal
In the Southwestern United States, several Native American groups, most notably the Hopi, observe a mid-winter celebration called Soyal. This 16-day ceremony includes a variety of events, and most of them mark the beginning of a new year as the sun returns to the world.
During the winter solstice, it was believed that the sun god was furthest from the tribe. The Kachinas and other warriors from the tribe would dance to entice him back, and these activities are still part of Soyal celebrations today. Soyal celebrations are not typically open to the public. You can learn more about them here.
Iran – Yaldā
Yaldā, also known as Shab-e Yalda or Shab-e Chelleh in Persian, marks the winter solstice in modern Iran. Many people celebrate Yaldā night with family and friends, celebrating the passage of the darkest day of the year.
It also occurs on the final night of the month of Azar, which is the ninth month of the year; winter begins as the new month (Dey) begins the following day. In some traditions, you should stay up at least past midnight on Yaldā to avoid the misfortunes of the year’s longest night.
Yaldā celebrations are usually a small, social event where friends and family gather to eat and drink together. Fruits (especially pomegranate and watermelon) and nuts are common foods for a Yaldā night celebration.
It’s also common to read poetry including the famous Persian poet Hafez. Sometimes, elder family members will share stories and anecdotes too, to help pass the time.
China – Dōngzhì
In China, Dōngzhì is the winter solstice festival. Dōngzhì is associated with yin and yang philosophies. As the sunlight begins to return to the northern hemisphere, this increases the flow of positive energy in life. That sounds like a good reason to celebrate!
Dōngzhì is a family holiday; family members come together to eat and drink together. One of the most common foods for celebrating Dōngzhì is tangyuan, balls of glutinous rice served in a soup for each family member. Tangyuan symbolizes reunion, much as celebrating Dōngzhì brings the family together.
In some parts of China, dumplings are another popular Dōngzhì food. Some families will also visit their ancestral temples to worship, creating even more of a ‘reunion’ on Dōngzhì.
Scandinavia – Yule
Yule is probably the most well-known Winter Solstice celebration, because of its close ties to Christmas. Before the rise of Christianity in Europe, especially Northern Europe, Yule was a midwinter holiday to celebrate the midpoint in Winter. There is evidence that it was celebrated throughout northern Europe, from the Norse in Norway to Germanic peoples in what became modern Germany.
Today, Yule is often celebrated in its more traditional forms by those who observe Paganism. It’s typically a day of gathering and sometimes gift-giving.
Some Wicca also celebrate Yule with private ceremonies at home or with their covens. Most of us celebrate the modern, Christianized interpretation of Yule when we celebrate Christmas! Even the Yule log many people burn has its roots in celebrations of Yule, giving heat against the winter cold.
Did we miss any other winter solstice festivals or celebrations? Let us know in the comments!
Featured photo credit: AJoStone via Flickr