Light and candles are especially important on the darkest days of the year. Here, a woman celebrates Loy Krathong in Lumpini Park in Bangkok. (Photo: Robertpollai [CC BY 2.0]/Wikimedia Commons)
While summer is probably the most oft-cited "favorite season," there are plenty of people in the world for whom winter comes first. There's something beautiful about the contrasts of winter — the extra-bright sun (the Earth is closer to the sun during winter) paired with the long, dark nights — that make winter-lovers happy. Of course, all the fun outdoor winter sports are a wonderful part of the season too, if it's cold enough for them where you live. But even if it's not chilly, the changes in light during and after the winter solstice are remarkable — every single year.
These shortest days of the year lead up to or are included in the many holidays of light around the world. There's Christmas with lights on the tree and Advent candles and Chanukah with menorah candles, of course, but also less well-known or regional celebrations like St. Lucia's Day in Sweden, Loy Krathong in Thailand and St. Martin's Day in Holland. The lights extend to pre-religious celebrations like the yule log, and into new year's fireworks and later celebrations of Christmas, like the Coptic Christian celebrations in Egypt. It's really beautiful to see how different cultures all celebrate being on Planet Earth — and subject to its particular and unique orbit around the sun that results in seasons — in such similar ways. Here are just a few traditions involving light.
Touji in Japan
In Japan, the Yuzu fruit plays an important role during the winter solstice. The citrus fruit is sour and strong in smell. Therefore, people believe the strong aroma wards off evil spirits. It's customary during the winter solstice to take a hot bath with lots of yuzus. Tradition says the hot yuzu bath purifies someone for the new year. It's such a popular tradition in Japan that even public bath houses use the fruit in their baths. Another custom is to eat pumpkin. While pumpkin only grows in the summer in Japan, for centuries people would preserve pumpkin to get them through the harsh winter. The pumpkin has come to symbolize preparing for the winter ahead.
Stonehenge in the United Kingdom
Stonehenge is quite arguably one of the most popular tourist attractions in the United Kingdom. People from all over the world flock to Stonehenge to catch the winter solstice. The ancient monument was built between 3,000 and 2,000 B.C. It's perfectly aligned on a sight line that shows the winter solstice at sunset between the pillars. Legend has it that the winter solstice at Stonehenge was a significant event thousands of years ago because it was when beer and wine would be fully fermented and cows would be slaughtered.
Dong Zhi in China
For people in China, reunion and and harmony are the central themes during Dong Zhi, the winter solstice festival. Families will reunite and cook either tangyuan, glutinous rice balls, in southern China or dumplings in northern China. Families would eat these dishes after spending the day together worshiping at temple.
Newgrange in Ireland
Newgrange is a massive tomb-shaped stone, covering an area more than one acre, that some historians believe was built around 3200 B.C. making it older than the pyramids of Egypt or Stonehenge in England. During the winter solstice, the tomb's entrance aligns with the sun. Above the entrance, there is a 'roof-box,' an opening, that allows the sunlight to reach the deep inner chambers of the tomb during the winter solstice.
Parols in the Philippines
In the Philippines, Christmas is celebrated via parols, or lanterns, which are circular, kaleidoscopic designs. The original parols were made from bamboo and lit with candles, but most today are electronic, some quite large, while others that are smaller are grouped together in shop windows and homes. Parols are a recognition of the Star of Bethlehem that guided the three wise men to Jesus in the Christmas story. Parols are a newer tradition, dating from 1908, which has grown and changed over the last 50 years.
St. Lucia's Day in Sweden
St. Lucia's Day in Sweden falls on Dec. 13 each year, and is also celebrated in Finland and Swedish-speaking areas of Norway. St. Lucia was an early martyr who was killed for her Christian beliefs in 304. One theory about the origins of her celebration at this time of year is that in the pre-Gregorian calendar, the 13th actually fell on the solstice, so the St. Lucia celebration could be a combination of pre-existing pagan solstice celebrations being included and transformed as Christianity took over in Europe. Each town has its own St. Lucia, and each household may have its own too (generally the eldest daughter). A saffron bread called Lussekatter and coffee are served to the family by the designated St. Lucia, who is dressed all in white with a red sash. The festival part of the celebration finds many young "St. Lucias" dressed in white robes and wearing lighted wreaths on their heads — you can see how it all comes together in the video above. Boys are included as Star Boys, and they wear white pajamas.
Loy Krathong in Thailand
Loy Krathong is a festival celebrated sometime in November or early December, predominantly in Thailand. Translated, the words mean "to float a basket" which is an integral part of the ceremony of the holiday. Krathong are decorated baskets that are set adrift on a local waterway — and loi/loy means "to float." Inside the baskets — which can be made from bread, styrofoam (often banned as polluting) or banana leaves — will be a small serving of food and dessert, as well incense and a candle. Some people include a coin as an additional offering, and the night of the 12th full moon of the year, the krathong is set sail on a pond, river or canal. Others cut fingernails or hair to include in the krathong as a symbolic letting go of negative feelings. Some think this is an ancient ceremony to honor the water spirits, or the Goddess of Water, Ganga, though today it's considered a Buddhist ritual. There is a similar festival called Yi Peng in Northern Thailand, where aerial lanterns are lit and set adrift in the sky.
Martinmas originated in France, and then spread to Germany, where it's called Martinsfeuer, Scotland, Scandanavia and Eastern Europe. It's usually held on Nov. 11 and celebrates the end of the harvest season and the butchering of animals. It's also the day when women would often take their work inside for the winter, and farm hands would seek new positions for the coming year. It's typically celebrated today with bonfires and lanterns, along with song. Roast goose is a traditional food of the holiday. The celebration recognizes a Roman soldier, St. Martin, who later became a monk.
And a more individualized approach
I've never seen this type of fire dancing before, but dancer Anna Omelyantseva (aka Anna Whirling) looks like the perfect embodiment of the turning of the Earth towards winter in this evocative dance routine. On her Facebook page, she writes of her dancing: "Whirling for me is a journey within myself, a way to meet and talk to God, something at the junction of dance and deep meditation, deepest emotional experience I can ever get."
Editor's Note: The story has been updated since it was originally published in December 2016.