December 21 marks the longest night in the northern hemisphere, the winter solstice. For centuries, cultures from Scandinavia to Asia have recognized the solstice as the marker for slowly extending days, the end of harvests and even the potential for active evil spirits.
Below are some ways that people around the world bring light to the year’s darkest day.
- St Lucia’s Day “Festival of Lights” and Yule, Scandinavia
Known for its lengthy dark winters, Scandinavia has a long tradition of marking the winter solstice with festivities that interweave pre-Christian and Christian traditions.
St Lucia’s Day takes place on December 13 (the longest day of the year, according to the Julian calendar), a few days before the solstice itself. Before Christianity came to the region, the Norse recognized the winter solstice by burning large fires to scare away evil spirits, and this tradition has influenced the present-day “Festival of Lights,” now a holiday honoring St Lucia. A celebration of light conquering darkness, St Lucia’s Day processions feature thousands of candles, and the household’s eldest daughter dons a white dress and a crown of candles before serving coffee and baked treats to the rest of the family.
St Lucia’s Day kicks off the Yule season, a period more-or-less synonymous with Christmastime festivities. However, Yule (thought to originate from the Old Norse name for the festival, jōl) originally stems from a pre-Christian feast celebrating the coming return of the sun and the god Odin, and many current holiday traditions came from this festival – yule logs and evergreens, cider and mulled wine, gift giving and more.
- Winter solstice at Newgrange, Ireland
Newgrange in County Meath, Ireland, is a prehistoric site that draws much attention during the winter months, a mysterious place approximated to have been built in 3200 BCE. This circular structure was designed so that its longest passage and inner chamber illuminate completely during sunrise on the winter solstice, leading archeologists to believe that Newgrange may have served as a religious or ceremonial center.
Today, you can experience the winter solstice sunrise at Newgrange the same way that the Neolithic people of the area once did. Due to the structure’s limited capacity, a lottery is required for entry at dawn between December 18 and 23 — 60 people are selected (and invited to bring a guest), with ten winners entering the structure each morning to witness the solar phenomenon. If you’re itching to experience a winter solstice with a prehistoric edge, apply for the lottery through Brú na Bóinne Visitor Centre.
- The fires of Lohri, India
Lohri, a celebration of the end of winter and the harvest season, is one of the most popular festivals in northern India, particularly in the states of Punjab and Haryana. Originally held on the winter solstice, Lohri now takes place on January 13 right before Makar Sankranti, the Hindu festival dedicated to the sun deity Surya. While the celebration incorporates several different meanings, it pays homage to the fire and sun gods, and it’s particularly important for families who have recently celebrated births or marriages.
In the days leading up to the holiday, people gather firewood in preparation for the massive bonfires lit on Lohri night. Traditional treats include popcorn, peanuts and gajak (a dessert made of sesame seeds and jaggery), which are enjoyed by participants and thrown into the fire as offerings.
- Yalda Night, Iran and neighboring countries
Yalda Night is a centuries-old tradition in Iran on the shortest day of the year that originally celebrated Mithra, the Zoroastrian deity of light; it’s also known as Shab-e Chelleh, the “night of forty,” a reference to the first of 40 winter days. At its time of origin, people were warned to stay awake throughout the night, warding off any misfortune by gathering in groups of family and friends, as evil forces were most active during this time.
Modern celebration continues with people celebrating late into the night; telling stories; reciting poetry; and eating the last fruits of summer (pomegranates, watermelon) to ensure good health, along with various nuts, stews and rice dishes.
- Burning the Clocks, Brighton, UK
A contemporary take on winter solstice light celebrations, Burning the Clocks is a quirky lantern parade held by Brighton’s arts charity, Same Sky, on the evening of December 21. This event has been running for 20 years, and it was established as a religion-agnostic way to celebrate the festive season. Participants construct their own creative paper and willow lanterns and walk through the streets of Brighton before ending the celebration by throwing their creations into a bonfire on the local beach.
- Tōji traditions, Japan
Winter is coming in Japan – what do you do? Take a relaxing soak in a bath full of yuzu fruit, as per the country’s tōji (winter solstice) tradition. Known as a yuzu-yu, the citrus-infused bath is considered to have a warming effect that wards off illness in the coming cold months, a practice that dates back hundreds of years.
Other winter solstice traditions include eating winter squash, toji-gayu (rice porridge with Adzuki beans), as well as foods whose names contain the “n” sound, which is believed to bring good luck – ninjin (carrot), udon (noodles) and ginnan (ginko nut) are all good options.
- Winter Solstice Lantern Festival, Vancouver, Canada
On December 21, Vancouver holds with one of its most festive events, with thousands taking to the streets on Granville Island and in Yaletown to light up the darkest night. This festival features lantern-making workshops, fire performances and musical entertainment, creating a carnival-like atmosphere that drives away any winter blues. Other attractions include the Labyrinth of Light, an indoor art installation featuring 600 candles, and storytelling presentations.