Winter Solstice Traditions Around the World from Dong Zhi to Yule

Updated by Heather Lefebvre

stefan-siden-solstice.jpg Photo credit: Stefan Sidén

It's that time of year –– not simply the holiday season, but the official start of the winter season! Monday, December 21 marks this year's winter solstice, also known as the first day of winter and the shortest day of the year. After the 21st, the solar year starts a new cycle, so the sun rises earlier and sets later right up until the summer solstice in June. (For the northern hemisphere, anyway; in the southern hemisphere, the winter solstice occurs in June and the summer solstice in December!)

Whether it's known as Yule, the solstice, or the longest night of the year, this change in seasons has been celebrated by pagans, Christians, and other religious practitioners for centuries. Even today, winter solstice rituals are still celebrated across the world in many countries and cultures –– and you can celebrate it too, if the spirit moves you!

Yule Traditions

Considered the " return of the sun {target="_blank"}," Yule started as a pre-Christian pagan holiday. Today, it's celebrated in Western countries by pagans, Wiccans, and modern witches . As a result, many traditional Yule customs continue today, albeit in new forms. You might even celebrate some of them already!

The Yule Log

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No, it's not just a delicious dessert –– Yule logs are a tradition that originated in Norway centuries ago. The Norse believed, at the time, that the sun was a "wheel of fire" and, on the winter solstice, it rolled back to the earth.

To celebrate the days getting longer again, Norse celebrants would light a fire on the hearth with a "Yule log," an extra-large log of firewood. Once the Yule log was ready, the father of the household would add mead, oil, or salt to the log before burning as an offering to placate any spirits, then scatter the ashes from the fire around the family home for protection.

How to Celebrate Yule Today

Treat yourself to a Yule log –– or Yule tree! If you have a fireplace, throw a few logs on the fire and break out your coziest blanket. Make yourself a warming cocktail or pour yourself a glass of mulled red wine in lieu of mead. Take a few moments to admire the fire, reflect on the year to come, and write in a journal (if you use one) or do a five-minute meditation. Yule, and the tradition of the Yule log, is all about honoring light in a time of darkness: in other words, about hope and looking forward.

Alternatively, bake something new this holiday season! Nowadays, Yule logs are more commonly known as a traditional Christmas dessert, kind of like a giant chocolate Swiss roll. If you're a home baker looking to shake things up this Christmas season, you might try baking one at home! Baking a Yule log might sound complicated or intimidating (especially if you've seen the Great British Baking Show episode on them), but it's totally doable. Check out Smitten Kitchen's gingerbread Yule log recipe {target="_blank"} for a showstopping holiday dessert.

Saturnalia and Christmas

Named for Saturn, the Roman god of plenty and agriculture, Saturnalia {target="_blank"} was celebrated by ancient Romans to mark the end of the harvest season in late December. Kind of like an ancient Mardi Gras, the weeklong festival was a time to rejoice and socialize, with the social order –– and all business –– paused for the duration of Saturnalia. Enslaved people were permitted to do, say, and behave as they chose, while others indulged in excess.

To mark the occasion, Romans decorated their homes with evergreen and pinecone wreaths {target="_blank"} and decorated evergreen trees outside in nature with handmade ornaments that represented the sun, moon, and stars. In the last few days of Saturnalia, celebrants indulged in gift-giving with loved ones, exchanging presents such as small figurines and tapered candles.

Sound a little familiar? Because Saturnalia was still celebrated in Italy when Christianity began growing in popularity, and both holidays occurred around the same time of year, some of these traditions developed into the Christmas customs we know today.

Modern Solstice Traditions Around the World

lightscape-norway.jpg Photo credit: Lightscape

Celebrations of the winter solstice didn't end in ancient Rome or Norway. In fact, the winter solstice is still celebrated by cultures all across the world, from the American Southwest to the Middle East, United Kingdom, Scandinavia, and China.

Take a look below to learn more about these different winter solstice rituals to celebrate the coming year!

Scandinavia: St. Lucia's Day

The annual holiday of St. Lucia's Day {target="_blank"}, honored in the Scandinavian countries of Sweden, Norway, and Finland, takes place on December 13. However, in these northern countries, this festival of lights still qualifies as a solstice celebration!

Marking the official start to the Christmas season, the holiday is intended, like the tradition of the Yule log, to "bring hope and light during the darkest time of the year." Each town, and family, selects someone to play the role of St. Lucia in the annual town procession, who wears a wreath of candles on her head and dresses in a white gown to symbolize light. Scandinavians also eat sweet St. Lucia buns {target="_blank"}, made with saffron and raisins.

East Asia: Dongzhi

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Across China and other East Asian countries such as Japan, Korea, and Vietnam, the yearly festival of Dongzhi {target="_blank"} (sometimes written as "Dong Zhi") celebrates the winter solstice as the one day in the year when the forces of yin and yang are equally balanced. After the solstice, the days grow longer, resulting in a greater flow of positive energy.

Families gather together to celebrate the Dongzhi Festival and cook traditional foods such as tang yuan, sweet dumplings made from rice flour and served with ginger syrup, to represent togetherness.

Arizona: Soyal

In northern Arizona, the Hopi and Zuni peoples celebrate the occasion called Soyal {target="_blank"} on the winter solstice each year. To mark the shortest day of the year, this Native American ceremony honors the descent of the Katsinam, or protective spirits watching over the Hopi, down from the mountains to bring the sun back to the world.

In the sixteen-day lead-up to the solstice, the Hopi create pahos, or prayer sticks, to share with friends and family. The winter solstice rituals of the Soyal ceremony involve sacred dance and offerings such as corn, and are private for spiritual reasons, usually held in sacred chambers underground called kivas.

The Middle East: Shab-e Yalda

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Shab-e Yalda, meaning "Yalda Night" –– also known sometimes as Shab-e Chelle, or "Chelleh Night" –– is celebrated from sundown on the last day of fall through the solstice, or first day of winter. The ancient Persian holiday marks the rebirth of the sun {target="_blank"} and is primarily associated with Iran, though other countries such as Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Armenia celebrate Yalda as well.

For this winter solstice celebration, families gather in the home of the family elders on Shab-e Yalda to eat, drink, and be merry! Traditional food and drink includes fruits such as pomegranates, watermelons, persimmons, apples, and more, as well as holiday teas and sharbat, drinks made from homemade fruit syrup and water. It's said that if one eats watermelon during Yalda, the person will be immune to the coming winter chill.

England: Stonehenge

stonehenge-dyana-wing-so.jpg Photo credit: Dyana Wing So

We may not know very much about how Stonehenge was built, but we do know the Neolithic monument was created to mark the passage of time by the movement of the sun. On the shortest day of the year, it's only natural that British and Celtic pagans would celebrate the sunset of midwinter {target="_blank"}, so-called because the winter solstice comes halfway through the solar year. While we don't know the details of such celebrations, archaeologists hypothesize that ancient peoples gathered at Stonehenge on the solstice to share a feast, potentially of pigs and cattle.

Now, thousands of celebrants travel to Stonehenge each year to witness the midwinter sun set behind the Heel Stone of Stonehenge! While the charity that manages the historical site, English Heritage, has closed Stonehenge to visitors this year due to the pandemic, the organization has set up a livestream of Stonehenge from sunrise on December 20 through sunset on December 21. Take a look here! {target="_blank"}

No matter how you mark the winter solstice, hope and light are coming. Here's to 2022!