Christmas was canceled last year for many of us. If this year should suffer the same fate, we have gathered a selection of winter solstice parties from all over the globe. You can not abolish an astronomical event!
Willkakuti Celebration, Bolivia
Roman pagans celebrated the shortest, darkest day or winter solstice on December 25, and welcomed the longer daylight hours ahead. That’s probably why we celebrate Christmas on this date; not because it was Jesus’ birthday.
As astronomy representative Colin Stuart explains: “Before temples made room for telescopes, so many civilizations saw the Sun as a god. On the winter solstice … they figured the deity was farthest from Earth, and it did everything they could to wave it back again to warm and sustain them for the coming year. “
We now know the astronomical cause of the solar eclipse: the earth tilts on its axis. On December 21, the Earth in the northern hemisphere gets the least light it gets all year round because it leans most away from the Sun, while the southern hemisphere has winter solstice in June.
Bolivians celebrate Willkakuti (‘return of the sun’) on June 21, which coincides with the New Year for the Amayran people of the Andes. The ruins at Tiwanaku are a popular place to greet at dawn as the sun rises through the entrance to a pre-Inca temple.
Lohri Festival, India
In Hinduism, the sun god Surya is a chariot deity. Surya also refers to the Sun and the early astronomical text Sûrya Siddhânta, which describes the motions of the planets and the Moon. Indian solstice celebrations, however, relate more to astrology than to astronomy, with the bonfire festival known as Lohri falling on January 13, with the Sun going from the constellation Sagittarius to Capricorn. The following day is Makar Sankranti, which marks the beginning of spring.
In addition to being a chance to kick off a new season, these festivals now provide the outlet for India’s love of kite flying. In 2020, trapped Indians bought kites in their millions to fly from their roofs and terraces; in Lohri 2021, some kite sellers complained about running out of stock.
Inti Raymi Festival, Peru
Countries that sit closer to the equator, such as Peru, experience a softer form of solar eclipse – the days never get so short or dark. But this does not dampen the festivities of the Peruvians. Held on June 24, Inti Raymi is named after Inti, the Inca sun god.
Stuart refers to it as his favorite solstice celebration. Why? “They get their mummified ancestors out of their graves for the day and lift them through the streets,” he says. That’s true – or at least it was for the Incas, who would gather in the square in the Incas capital Cusco after collecting their dead.
They would then continue this celebration with ritual sacrifices to Inti, involving hundreds of llamas. Today, the festival’s colorful dresses and dances entertain a crowd of thousands in what has been hailed as a re-enactment of the ancient gore party, albeit minus the mummies and with only one (hand) llama sacrifice.
Carnival Carnival, Portugal
The Romans celebrated Saturnalia, dedicated to the god Saturn, between 17 and 23 December. It was a kind of late autumn feast associated with feasting and fertility. Confusingly, this is considered to be one of several holidays that may have given birth to Lent, with people in the UK eating pancakes before Lent.
It is also believed to have influenced the tradition of Entrudo, meaning ‘entry’ (into Lent), which began in Portugal in the 13th century. Although Entrudo takes different forms in different regions, it has often involved chauvinistic rituals, as well as general bad behavior such as throwing buckets of water and flour. In the village of Lagoa, the men dress in white shirts and red skirts with striped aprons and wear masks known as campina (pictured). Despite its dubious origins, Entrudo currently has a revival.
Burning the Clocks Festival, UK
A modern solar festival, Burning the Clocks in Brighton, UK, is not exactly steeped in old tradition – it only started in 1994 – but visually it has a touch of paganism about it. Every year, community groups pour their energy into creating hundreds of paper lanterns, clocks, and representations of mysterious figures so they can march them down the main street before ritually burning them in one giant bonfire on the beach.
The parade is organized by the charity art organization Same Sky, whose artistic director is John Varah. He says that solstice was chosen because it matters in many traditions but is “owned by no one”. As for the unclean, they symbolize the enemy or the governor. “So at the end of the solar year, we burn those symbols,” Varah says. The parade was canceled in 2020 due to COVID-19 restrictions, but local shops and public spaces hosted a lantern nest instead.
Santo Tomás Festival, Guatemala
Due to its proximity to the equator, Guatemala’s winter solstice, like Peru, is much less extreme than what we experience closer to the poles. Even in the middle of winter, there is still 11 hours of sunlight, which just equates to more time for partying, especially in the otherwise quiet town of Chichicastenango.
In December, ‘Chichi’ breaks into life and celebrates for an entire week ahead of December 21 with dancing, colorful costumes and pole vaulting, a seemingly ancient tradition inherited from the city’s Mayan ancestors. Pole-flyers or ‘palo voladores’ are masked marimba dancers dressed as monkeys or jaguars, who climb up on a death-defying high pole and then spin from it with ropes attached to the top.
Other dances include an adapted Mayan fertility ritual and a dance to honor the city’s Christian patron saint, Saint Tomás. Although all this seems somewhat distant from the solstice, its roots are in the customs of the Maya people, who worshiped the Sun as a god and were fascinated by its movements. A few hours north, Mayan ruins hidden in the jungle at Ceibal house some of the oldest known solar observatories.
St Lucia day, Sweden
It is no wonder that the returning light is reason to celebrate in Sweden, where the sun in the depths of December can rise and set between breakfast and lunch. Here, the transition to longer days is marked by parades of costumed children carrying candles. They are led by St. Lucia, ‘bearer of light’.
In the Italian tradition, St. Lucia is a Christian martyr who carried candles on her head to light her way around the catacombs of Rome, where she provided food to persecuted Christians, but in Sweden she seems to have been adopted to embody the pagan sun goddess Sunna.
Megan McQuilton, who moved from the UK to Åsele in Swedish Lapland in 2018, says St Lucia is a “massive” deal for locals. “It’s a cultural tradition they keep as Christmas and definitely a celebration that we want to go into brighter times,” McQuilton explains. The candlelight procession and feast day take place on December 13, when the Italian Lucia was allegedly killed by Roman guards. The Swedes celebrate by eating sweet saffron buns called lynx cats and drinking mulled wine.
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