The Significance of the Winter Solstice

frosted rosehips in the snow

Winter solstice rituals have long been practiced by cultures around the world. Traditionally, it’s been a time to celebrate the harvest, the return of the Sun, and the dichotomies of life and death.

But what does the winter solstice actually entail and how can we draw spiritual significance from it?

The Winter Solstice: How It Works

Not unlike the summer solstice, the winter solstice is an astrological event. It occurs when the Earth’s tilt towards the sun is at its minimum, resulting in the shortest day and longest night of the year. After the solstice, the days start getting longer again as we move towards springtime. This year, the winter solstice falls on December 21 in the Northern Hemisphere.

winter moon solstice with snow

Ancient cultures around the world have attached various meanings to the solstice, which has cultivated diverse rituals and customs that still live on to this day.

Here Are Some Of The World’s Solstice Celebrations

Ever switched on the TV to the crackling yule log channel during the holidays? That custom stems from the ancient Norse, who celebrated yule from the winter solstice through January. Yule was a celebration of the return of the sunlight, and Norse people recognized the holiday by sending boys and men out to bring home large logs that were lit on fire. People would feast until the log burned out, which could take as many as 12 days!

On the South American continent, the Incas celebrated Inti Raymi (Festival of the Sun) to pay homage to the sun god, Inti. Fasting would occur three days leading up to the solstice. On the day of the solstice, people gathered in a ceremonial plaza to watch the sun rise, kneeling down to offer the sun god cups of chicha, a sacred fermented drink, as well as animal sacrifices. Inti Raymi celebrations still take place today in countries like Ecuador and Peru.

chinese dongzhi festival celebrations

In mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, winter solstice celebrations are called Dongzhi. The holiday started off as a celebration of the harvest, but these days, it’s a time to welcome longer days and spend time with family.

In some cultures, like the indigenous Zuni tribe of western New Mexico, the winter solstice marks the start of the new year. Celebrations begin with fasting, prayer, and, finally, a traditional dance called the Shalako.

How To Celebrate The Winter Solstice

Despite their various origins, almost all winter solstice celebrations are connected by a common thread: they’re a celebration of the return of the sun.

What does this mean for you?

If you’re one to live in tune with seasonal changes and astrological events, consider this an opportunity to honor the light in your life.

hand holding a lit candle

One winter solstice ritual I enjoy is getting up early to watch the sunrise. The winter solstice is also a time to honor the natural world, so when I’m feeling extra motivated, I head out on a hike to watch the sunrise from a view.

But if you’re not a morning person, light candles instead to welcome brightness and warmth into your home. If you have a fireplace or an outdoor fire pit, try your hand at (safely) building a fire.

And let’s not forget that the winter solstice was also traditionally celebrated with lots of food. Cook your favorite nourishing meal, soak in the flavors, and feel the warmth build from the inside.

No matter how you celebrate the solstice, don’t lose sight of its ancient meaning. The days may still be cold and dark, but we can use the winter solstice as a reminder that brighter days lie ahead.

Cecilia Seiter
Cecilia is a freelance writer and contributor to Slow North. She writes largely about sustainability, especially as it applies to beauty, wellness, and the future of technology. She is a graduate of the journalism department at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo and is based in Oakland , CA.