This year, winter solstice (aka midwinter) occurs in the Northern Hemisphere on Thursday, December 21, at 11:28 a.m. Winter solstice happens when the North Pole is the farthest away from the sun—rendering it the shortest day and longest night of the year. In ancient cultures (and some modern ones), winter solstice traditions are held to celebrate this natural event. Many of these rituals began thousands of years ago, as many cultures believed that if they didn’t properly honor the sun with festivities, it wouldn’t return.
These pagan winter solstice traditions were part of a bigger celebration called Yule, and differed depending on where you lived. In pre–16th century northern Europe, feasts were a big part of the festivities, particularly because locals had just killed their cattle to avoid having to feed them during the winter. In Scandinavia, the Feast of Juul (Yule) included the burning of a Yule log, which took place over 12 days to honor the sun’s rebirth. The Feast of Saturnalia, the Ancient Romans’ tradition, included feasting and gift giving. Sound familiar? As you can tell, many of these rituals became modern-day Christmas traditions.
Another bit of information for you: The largest modern-day winter solstice gathering takes place at Stonehenge in England, where thousands of people congregate to watch the sunrise. This happens to be the best spot to watch this natural occurrence because the ruins are believed to have been a spiritual center over 2000 years ago. This period has always been marked as a time to reflect and connect with others and nature.
Want to celebrate the winter solstice without visiting Stonehenge? Below, find 14 winter solstice traditions to try on December 21.
- Gather around the Yule log as a family.
- Have a bonfire; write down anything you want to let go on a slip of paper, and then throw it in the fire (so cathartic).
- Meditate alone or with others (guided meditation is a popular ritual).
- Eat a feast or a series of feasts with only the most indulgent of foods.
- Put a branch of mistletoe on the hearth and leave it there until next year as a symbol of good luck.
- Decorate your home with pinecones, holly, and ivy—especially in communal areas.
- Spend time with those you love; call or send letters to those far away.
- Hang an evergreen wreath filled with seasonal herbs on your front door to symbolize the circle of life.
- Put colored lights around your home—both inside and out.
- Host a gift exchange with those dear to you.
- Forgo using electricity for a day; rely on candles and lanterns.
- Have a bell ringing ceremony. Use various bells and have each person announce their wishes for the New Year upon ringing it.
- Dress little ones up in costumes (the sun and stars are a common theme).
- Donate to those in your community who are less fortunate.