Why the winter solstice is important around the world

If you’ve already spent hours shoveling snow this year, you might be dismayed to discover that it’s not technically winter yet. By astronomical definition, the season officially began in the northern hemisphere on December 21: the shortest day of the year, known as the winter solstice.

The weeks leading up to the solstice can feel long as the days get shorter and temperatures drop. But it’s also traditionally a time of renewal and celebration – no wonder so many cultures celebrate major holidays around this time.

Here at The Conversation, we’ve rounded up four of our favorite stories about the Solstice: from what it really is to how it’s thought of around the world.

journey of the sun

First things first: what is the winter solstice?

First of all, it’s not the day with the latest sunrise or the earliest sunset. Rather, it is when “the sun appears lowest in the northern hemisphere sky and is at its southernmost point above the earth,” wrote William Teets, an astronomer at Vanderbilt University. “After that, the sun will creep north again.”

“Believe it or not,” he added, “we’re closest to the sun in January”: a reminder that the seasons depend on Earth’s axial tilt at any given time, not its distance from our star solar system.

Ancient astronomy

Many Americans who envision the winter solstice celebrations may immediately think of Stonehenge, but cultures have honored the solstice much closer to home. Many Native American communities have long held solstice ceremonies, explained University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign scholar Rosalyn LaPier, an Indigenous writer, ethnobotanist, and environmental historian.

“For decades, scholars have studied Aboriginal astronomical observations and attempted to understand their meaning,” LaPier wrote. Some societies in North America expressed this knowledge through constructions in specific locations, such as Cahokia, Illinois – temple pyramids and mounds similar to those built by the Aztecs that align with the sun on solstices days.

“Although some traditions of the winter solstice have changed over time, they still serve as a reminder of indigenous peoples’ understanding of the intricate workings of the solar system,” she wrote, and their “ancient understanding of how the world is interconnected.”

Blinding light

Rubén Mendoza, an archaeologist at California State University, Monterey Bay, made an accidental discovery years ago at a mission church. In this prayer room and many others erected by Catholic missionaries during the Spanish colonial period, the winter solstice triggers “an extraordinarily rare and fascinating event,” he explained: “A ray of sunshine enters each of these churches and bathes an important religious object, altar, Crucifix or statue of a saint in radiant light.”

These missions were built to convert Native Americans to Catholicism—people whose cultures had celebrated the apparent victory of the sun over darkness at the solstice for thousands of years. But the missions integrated these traditions in a new way, channeling the symbolism of the sun into a Christian message.

“These events offer us insights into archaeology, cosmology and Spanish colonial history,” Mendoza wrote. “As our own December holidays approach, they demonstrate the power of our instincts to guide us through the darkness to the light.”

victory over darkness

Our next story goes halfway around the world and describes the Persian solstice festival of Yalda. But it’s also an American story. Growing up in Minneapolis, anthropologist Pardis Mahdavi explained, she felt a little left out when neighbors celebrated Hanukkah and Christmas. It was at this point that her grandmother introduced her to her family’s Yalda traditions.

Millions of people around the world celebrate Yalda, which marks the sunrise after the longest night of the year. “The ancient Persians believed that the forces of evil were strongest on the longest, darkest night of the year,” wrote Mahdavi, who is now a provost at the University of Montana. Families stayed up all night eating and telling stories, then celebrating “as the light streamed through the sky at the moment of dawn”.

Editor’s Note: This story is a compilation of articles from The Conversation’s archives.

The Conversation is an independent and not-for-profit source for news, analysis and commentary from academic experts. The Conversation is solely responsible for the content.

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