“Arise, shine, for your light has come!” These words from Handel’s Messiah resonate with meaning for me at Christmas. My own celebration is likewise enriched by the multitude of traditions around the world that honor the return of light to the world during the darkest days of the year.
Observations of the winter solstice date back millennia. For many cultures, the long hours of darkness marked a time of fear and expectancy. Rituals were created to entice the sun’s return after the long winter, and many contemporary holiday traditions are rooted in ancient customs, such as bringing evergreen trees into the home to symbolize enduring life, burning a yule log on the shortest day of the year, and lighting the menorah candles at Hanukkah.
“Solstice” is derived from the ancient Latin sol + stice, meaning “sun” and “to stand still”: the hinge on which the year turns, after which the days grow longer again and the promise of light, warmth and renewed fertility is borne out with each new day. In old Europe, it was known as Yule, from the Norse, jul, meaning wheel.
While our family will be home on the solstice tonight, enjoying a new tradition we’ve added to our seasonal repertoire — a candlelight dinner of cheese fondue — there are a host of solstice celebrations around the world worthy of a pilgrimage. Should you be so inspired, here’s a diverse sampling for light-loving travelers as you consider future holiday plans.
1. Vancouver, B.C.: Winter Solstice Lantern Festival
The Winter Solstice Lantern Festival, now in its 16th year, illuminates the longest night of the year with lanterns, fire, singing, drumming, music and dancing. Five Vancouver neighborhoods hold small, community-based celebrations that collectively comprise the Lantern Festival. Highlights include the Labyrinth of Light, created with more than 700 pure beeswax candle luminarias, inviting visitors to warm themselves in a self-guided ceremony intended to release old attachments and envision new possibilities as a new season is birthed. At Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden, the traditions of the Chinese winter solstice, dong zhi, are honored, marking the rebirth of the yang qualities of light and energy. The gardens are illuminated with enchanting displays of hundreds of handmade lanterns by Chinese artists, while live music, hot tea and warm buns are on offer to enliven a chilly stroll.
2. Penzance, England: Montol Festival of Midwinter
Featuring bonfires, lanterns, masked dancing, traditional Cornish caroling, a classic Mummers Play and Christmas market selling handcrafts and wassail, the Montol Festival celebrates the seasonal traditions of Cornwall. The eve of the winter solstice has also been celebrated as the date of King Arthur’s birthday by the Cornish for over 1,000 years. Capped with the lighting of “the Mock,” a giant yule log, the festival runs the week before, and including, the solstice (Dec. 14-21, 2009). Guests are encouraged to wear black and white costumes and masks as Cornish guise dancers have done for centuries during solstice-season festivities.
3. Newgrange, Ireland
The megalithic tomb at Newgrange — more than 5,000 years old — is one of the world’s most remarkable places to spend the solstice — if you are lucky enough to win a lottery allowing you inside the edifice at the magic moment. The 19-meter passage and cruciform-shaped inner chamber are flooded with light by the winter solstice sunrise — assuming it’s a clear day, not a frequent event in Ireland in December. A shaft of sunlight through the roof box over the entrance penetrates the passage to light up the chamber. The dramatic event lasts for 17 minutes at dawn on the winter solstice and for a few mornings on either side of the solstice itself. Admission to the chamber is by lottery, and applications are available through the Bru na Boinne Visitor Center. More than 28,000 applications were received last year; 50 names are drawn, and two places are awarded to each lucky recipient.
4. Riga, Latvia: Ziemassvetki — Winter Party
This festive party celebrates the winter solstice at the the huge Ethnographic Open Air Museum just east of Riga, Latvia’s capital city. Replete with dancing, folk singing and raucous log-pulling, Ziemassvetki celebrates the birth of Dievs, the highest god in Latvian mythology. The day marks the culmination of Velu laiks (the “season of ghosts”), when candles are lit for minor gods and a fire is kept burning until the end of festivities, to burn away the unhappiness of the previous year. Traditionally the party itself is built around a feast, at which a place was left empty for the arrival of ghosts, said to arrive on a sleigh. This year, festivities happen on Dec. 20 and Dec. 26.
5. India: Makar Sankranti
This auspicious Hindu harvest festival, marked by fervor and gaiety, is celebrated in myriad cultural forms throughout India on Jan. 14 each year. Though it follows the actual winter solstice, the day is set aside to mark the ascendancy of the Sun God into the Northern Hemisphere, reminding his children that “Tamaso Ma Jyotir Gamaya, may you go higher and higher, to more and more Light and never to Darkness.” To Hindus, as for many of the world’s people, the Sun stands for knowledge, spiritual light and wisdom. Makar Sankranti signifies a call to turn away from the darkness of delusion toward a new life, brightened by the light within and growing in purity, wisdom and knowledge — as the Sun itself does from the day of Makar Sankranti forward.
6. New York City: Paul Winter’s Annual World Music Celebration of the Winter Solstice
In a giant city offering a dazzling array of holiday events, the spectacle of Paul Winter’s Winter Solstice Celebration celebrates the return of the sun, attracting thousands of concert-goers to New York’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine, the world’s largest gothic cathedral. This annual event, now in its 31st year, is typically held the weekend of or just prior to the solstice. Winter and company take the listener on a symbolic journey through the world on the longest night of the year, incorporating theatrical musical effects that highlight the titanic space of the Cathedral. The centerpiece of the event is a giant rotating “Solstice Tree” — a 28-foot spiral aluminum sculpture hung with hundreds of bells, gongs and chimes representing the diversity of life on Earth. The climactic return of the Sun is celebrated by the world’s largest tam-tam gong, 7 feet in diameter, which slowly ascends, with its player, to the 100-foot vault of the Cathedral. Though it has passed for 2009, bookmark it for next year, and look ahead to Winter’s summer solstice concert in New York as well.