While you’re sitting down to a lovely meal and bowl of sweet tong yuen with your families this winter solstice, people in other parts of the world will be celebrating, too.
Because the upcoming solstice, which takes place between December 21 and 22 this year, is a solar event, it is observed around the world.
In the northern hemisphere, it will be the shortest day of the year, and in the southern hemisphere, which will be celebrating the summer solstice, it is the shortest night of the year. The solstice also marks the official end of winter and summer and the start of spring and autumn.
To keep things simple we’ll stick to calling this event the winter solstice. It happens at the same time across the globe: Sunday, December 22, 4.19am.
Celebrated in history
While it’s not very clear to see, on the solstice, the sun seems to rise and fall in almost the same place. This event fascinated many ancient civilisations, who built large, impressive monuments to honour it.
The Inca people at Machu Picchu in Peru built the Temple of the Sun. When the sun rises during their winter solstice, it shines through one of the temple windows and lights up a ceremonial stone inside.
Some 5,000 years ago, people living in Ireland built a tomb – known as Newgrange – in such a way that the chamber inside is lit up by the rising sun on winter solstice.
Meanwhile, in nearby Britain, you can find Stonehenge. Every year, the ring of massive stones attracts people who want celebrate the solstice. No one knows who built the stone circle, but when the sun rises it hit a special stone, lighting it up.
At the Pyramids of Giza near Cairo, Egypt, you can also witness a special illumination if you view them from the Sphinx statue. At Chichen Itza in Mexico, the light from the sun creates an illusion of seven triangles on the steps of a pyramid structure which connect to a stone head of a serpent at the bottom.
Jantar Mantar in New Delhi is a giant clock and calendar that was built in the early 18th century. At winter solstice, one pillar completely covers the other with its shadow, while at summer solstice, it casts no shadow.
Humans have long felt a special connection to the solstice; it is no wonder that countries all over the world celebrate it. It is important because it marks the return of the sun, and without the sun we would not be able to survive.
During this time, people traditionally clean out the clutter in their homes, ready for a fresh start to the year. They also clean their homes, using a traditional besom – what we now call a witch’s broom – to sweep away any bad luck. They then burn incense made of certain herbs to further cleanse the home.
If the home has a real fireplace, families might place a yule log in it. This is an especially big log that will burn for longer than normal firewood. It symbolises the sun’s warmth and light.
Some people might hold a ceremony that involves three women: a young woman, representing the new year, an elderly woman, representing the past, and a middle-aged woman representing the mother. The elderly woman passes the light of her candle to the mother, who passes it to the young woman, symbolising the circle of life.
Just as people in the east believe that winter is yin and summer is yang, and the solstice is the strongest point of yin, some westerners believe that on the solstice, the king of light, known as the Oak King, defeats the dark king, known as the Holly King. He then gets to reign for six months until the Holly King comes back for a rematch. This battle of light versus darkness is often acted out in plays.
But however you choose to celebrate this occasion – even if you just appreciate the sun a little more that day – we hope you have a merry solstice with your loved ones!