The Dongzhi Festival (or Winter Solstice Festival) is one of the most important in the Chinese calendar, with celebrations dating back to the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD). Falling on or around the 22nd December across the country and in other parts of Asia, the festival celebrates the return to longer hours of daylight and a boost in energy (Dongzhi meaning literally ‘the extreme of winter’). A time for feasting and family get-togethers, this ancient Chinese tradition is often when people make tangyuan, balls of often brightly coloured, sweet or savoury glutinous rice.
Winter Solstice at Stonehenge
The Winter Solstice has long been a pagan festival in the United Kingdom, and at the ancient site of Stonehenge crowds still gather to watch the sunrise and mark the beginning of lighter nights. This prehistoric stone monument, in Wiltshire, England, was constructed around 3000BC and, although no one is sure why, is lined up in such a way that it points to the Winter Solstice sunset. On the 22nd, the first sunrise after the shortest day, pagan communities and druids, as well as plenty of other spectators, all come together to see in the new day.
Lohri is a popular winter folk festival in the Punjab region of the Indian subcontinent, and is largely celebrated by Sikhs and Hindus. Although often considered to be a festival celebrating the passing of winter, Lohri is actually closer to a harvest festival, taking place in mid-January when the sugarcane crops are collected. As part of ancient tradition, big bonfires are lit and lots of food is enjoyed, while children visit their local neighbourhoods asking for treats (a bit like trick-or-treating) before throwing a little of it on the fire and dancing until the embers burn down.
St. Lucia’s Day
Saint Lucia’s Day, also known as the Feast of Saint Lucia, is celebrated in Scandinavian countries in honour of one of the earliest of Christian martyrs, believed to have been killed by Romans after bringing food to persecuted Christians in hiding. This festival of light takes place on 13th December and has been combined with other solstice traditions, such as burning fires to keep away spirits during the darkest time of the year. In the morning, girls in Sweden typically dress in a white gown with a red sash and wear a wreath of candles on their heads, while going from room to room singing carols and carrying saffron buns, gingerbread cookies and coffee.
Shab-e Yalda (or the “Night of Birth”) is an Iranian festival which falls on the longest and darkest night of the year. According to tradition, families and friends gather together on the night to keep each other safe from evil, burning fires and feasting on nuts, pomegranates and festive foods. Some stay awake all night to celebrate the arrival of the sun, often reading poetry and, in particular, the work of the 14th-century Persian poet, Hafiz.
Usually falling on or around 22nd December, Tōji is the Japanese winter solstice. Less a festival and more a traditional practice, centred around the ideas of starting the new year in good health and good luck, two of the most popular customs around this date are eating kabocha (or Japanese pumpkin) and taking a yuzu bath. Yuzu, a citrus fruit said to ward off colds, are thrown into public baths and hots springs for a relaxing spa-like treat for everyone to enjoy. In fact, even in some zoos, some of the inmates are treated to a winter solstice bath!