THE WINTER SOLSTICE IN HURLEYVILLE AND AROUND THE WORLD
by Brian Dennis
HURLEYVILLE, January 2022— The winter solstice celebration has become a tradition here in Hurleyville over the past several years, but elsewhere in the world, many commemorations of the event predate written history.
According to the History Channel, the winter solstice is the shortest day and longest night of the year. In the Northern Hemisphere, it takes place between December 20 and 23, depending on the year. (The reverse is true in the Southern Hemisphere, where the shortest day of the year occurs in June.) Cultures around the world have long held feasts and celebrated holidays around the winter solstice. Fire and light are traditional symbols of celebrations held on the darkest day of the year.
The winter solstice is the day of the year with the fewest hours of daylight, and it marks the start of astronomical winter. After the winter solstice, days start becoming longer and nights shorter as spring approaches.
As noted on the website History.com, “humans may have observed the winter solstice as early as Neolithic period—the last part of the Stone Age, beginning about 10,200 BC.”
“Neolithic monuments, such as Newgrange in Ireland and Maeshowe in Scotland, are aligned with sunrise on the winter solstice. Some archaeologists have theorized that these tomb-like structures served a religious purpose in which Stone Age people held rituals to capture the sun on the year’s shortest day.
“Stonehenge, which is oriented toward the winter solstice sunset, may also have been a place of December rituals for Stone Age people.”
Ancient Romans held several celebrations around the time of the winter solstice. Saturnalia, a holiday in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture, was a weeklong celebration in the days leading up to the winter solstice.
Saturnalia was a hedonistic time, when food and drink were plentiful and the normal Roman social order was turned upside down. For a month, enslaved people were given temporary freedom and treated as equals. Business and schools were closed so that everyone could participate in the holiday’s festivities.
In addition, members of the upper classes often celebrated the birthday of Mithra, on December 25. Mithra was an ancient Persian god of light. It was believed that Mithra, an infant god, was born of a rock. For some Romans, Mithra’s birthday was the most sacred day of the year. In the later Roman Empire, Mithra blended with Sol Invictus, god of the “unconquered sun.”
Some theorists believe the early Roman Catholic Church may have chosen the same date for Christmas in order to supplant pagan rituals, though many Christian scholars dispute this.
St. Lucia’s Day, A festival of lights in Scandinavia honors St. Lucia, one of the earliest Christian martyrs. It was incorporated with earlier Norse solstice traditions after many Norsemen converted to Christianity around 1000 A.D.
As a symbol of light, Lucia and her feast day blended naturally with solstice traditions such as lighting fires to scare away spirits during the longest, darkest night of the year.
On St. Lucia’s day, girls in Scandinavia wear white dresses with red sashes and wreaths of candles on their heads, as an homage to the candles Lucia wore on her head to light her way as she visited imprisoned Christians, carrying forbidden food in her arms.
The Chinese celebration of the winter solstice, Dong Zhi (which means “Winter Arrives”) welcomes the return of longer days and the corresponding increase in positive energy in the year to come.
In Japan, the winter solstice is less a festival than a traditional practice centered on starting the new year with health and good luck. It’s a particularly sacred time of the year for farmers, who welcome the return of a sun that will nurture their crops after the long, cold winter.
People light bonfires to encourage the sun’s return; huge bonfires burn on Mount Fuji each December 22.
“Yalda night” is an Iranian festival celebrating the longest and darkest night of the year. The celebration springs out of ancient Zoroastrian traditions and customs intended to protect people from evil spirits during the long night.
On Shab-e Yalda, (which translates to “Night of Birth”), Iranians all over the world celebrate the triumph of the sun god Mithra over darkness. According to tradition, people gather together to protect each other from evil, burn fires to light their way through the darkness, and perform charitable acts.
For the Native American Zuni tribe, one of the Pueblo peoples in western New Mexico, the winter solstice signifies the beginning of the year. It’s marked with a ceremonial dance called Shalako.
After fasting, prayer and observing the rising and setting of the sun for several days before the solstice, the Pekwin, or “Sun Priest” traditionally announces the exact moment of itiwanna, the rebirth of the sun, with a long, mournful call.
With that signal, the rejoicing and dancing begin, as 12 kachina clowns in elaborate masks dance along with the Shalako themselves—12-foot-high effigies with bird heads, seen as messengers from the gods. After four days of dancing, new dancers are chosen for the following year, and the yearly cycle begins again.
Like the Zuni, the Hopi in Northern Arizona celebrate the winter solstice with a similar ritual. In the Hopi solstice celebration of Soyal, the Sun Chief takes on the duties of the Zuni Pekwin, announcing the setting of the sun on the solstice. An all-night ceremony then begins, including kindling fires, dancing and sometimes gift-giving.
Traditionally, the Hopi sun-watcher was not only important to the winter solstice tradition, as his observation of the sun also governed the planting of crops and the observance of Hopi ceremonies and rituals all year long.
In Hurleyville, The Center for Discovery has traditionally hosted a Winter Solstice walk along the Milk Train Trail, lighted only by luminaria. It typically draws crowds of people.