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Shortest Day Of The Year: The Historical Significance Of The Winter Solstice Across The World

The winter solstice is when half of Earth is tilted the farthest from the Sun. This happens on December 21 or 22 in the Northern Hemisphere and June 20 or 21 in the Southern Hemisphere. It is also the shortest day of the year due to less sunlight reaching Earth. Just like other popular astronomical happenings, cultures from around the world celebrate it differently. Here are five historical celebrations and traditions of the winter solstice.

Inti Raymi

The Inca in Peru initially observed this celebration before the Spanish conquistadors. The festivities included sacrificing animals or probably children. The significance of the Incan is the celebration of the Sun god. 

Courtesy: Lonely Planet

However, the Spanish people banned the celebration. It was not until the 20th century before the celebration was brought back and modified– mock sacrifices are now used to replace real ones. In Peru, Inti Raymi is still celebrated every June.


For the Hopi Indians of Northern Arizona, Soyal is the celebration that signifies the winter solstice. They welcome protective spirits from the spirits called the kachinas. You can find kachina dolls in some museums today.

Courtesy: Sub Sea Systems

The Soyal celebration often includes dancing, purification, and sometimes, gift-giving. Hopi Indians craft prayer sticks and use them for different rituals, from seeking blessings to making other requests. 


Saturnalia is an ancient Roman festival around the winter solstice; it is closely linked with our modern Christmas celebration. This ancient holiday was done to celebrate the god Saturn.

Courtesy: Wayside Publishing

During the celebration period, slaves were treated as equals and allowed different privileges. It also involved games, gift-giving, and feasts. The term ‘saturnalia’ is still used today to describe a period of indulgence.

St. Lucia’s Day

St. Lucia’s Day is a Scandinavian festival of lights celebrated in the time of winter solstice. In earlier times, the Norse girls wore white gowns and red sashes with red candle wreaths on their heads to honor St. Lucia.

Courtesy: Sky History

Today, St. Lucia’s Day is celebrated to honor the Christian martyr. It still involves earlier traditions like lighting fires to prevent spirits during the longest night. It is also called St. Lucy’s Day.


Yalda, also called Shab-e Yalda, is the celebration of the winter solstice in Iran. The celebration, which started in ancient times, signifies the birthday of the sun god Mithra and the last day of the Persian month of Azar.

Courtesy: Wikipedia

In ancient times, families celebrated together with pomegranates and nuts (which were seen as special foods). The celebration was regarded as the victory of light over darkness; many families stayed up to welcome the morning sun.

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