Global Winter Light Traditions on the Darkest Days

For the northern hemisphere, (and by the western calendar) December 21 is the shortest, darkest day of the year. It marks the beginning of winter. Because of this, most winter traditions celebrate with light. I like this time of year because people naturally seek balance. To me, it’s about people making the best of a situation, to create your own light and give thanks on the darkest days. While these celebrations usually promote large gatherings among friends, family, and communities, I also like to take this time to go inward. If the summer months are bright and expressive, the winter months are deep and introspective. This is the time I use to reflect on my year and visualize the changes I’d like to make for the upcoming year. As my teachers call it, dream the world into being. I light a bonfire and let it all go. 

I have listed 12 light celebrations from around the world. (I realize my map has cropped out New Zealand.) Think of Alaska, the darkest of winters in the north illuminated by Aurora Borealis and people willingly outside around fires and lighting ice lanterns. I love learning about global traditions, creating the foods and decorations, and the dichotomy of feeling a sense of connection through something different. 

Let’s go!
  1. Diwali, pronounced Dih-V-ahlee, usually happens in November in India. It is a whole festival dedicated to celebrating light. Communities decorate with jasmine flowers, exchange food, wear a special Sari outfit, and cover the area with light. My neighbors would display string lights and lanterns outside of their homes, and they would set off a private but elaborate show of fireworks for us to enjoy. 

2. Dia de las Velitas, or Day of the Little Candles, is celebrated in Columbia December 7. The tradition is for Mary’s, mother of Jesus, Immaculate Conception. It precedes how she miraculously gives birth to Jesus, son of the Christian god, as a virgin on Christmas. Columbians take the streets with their candles that night and enjoy a feast. 

3. Bodhi Day on December 8, is a Buddhist celebration of Siddhartha becoming Buddha and achieving of enLIGHTenment. Part of the reason why I wanted to include this celebration despite its potential lack of physical light usage is because enlightenment is a pure, liberated state of consciousness, and as I interpret it, the wisdom of overcoming suffering is like emerging from darkness and going towards the light. Siddhartha decided to live a life of moderation and sat under a Bodhi tree until he became awakened. Communities visit temples to chant and embrace principles of non-judgement.

4. Hanukkah (this year 12/10-12/18) celebrates light in the Jewish religion by lighting a candle on the Menorah each night for eight nights. This tradition commemorates how enough fuel for one night of candle burning miraculously lasted and kept the candles lit for eight nights. Families may also celebrate Hanukkah by exchanging gifts each of the nights and eating delicious potato pancakes, latkes, topped with sour cream or applesauce. 

5. Santa Lucia is a tradition is primarily in Sweden. By the old Julian calendar, the darkest, shortest day falls closer to December 13. It’s about, of course, Saint Lucia, bearer of light. Participants in the ceremony wear white, sing, and carry candles. The leader, representative of Saint Lucia as voted by her schoolmates or the oldest female daughter of the family, wears a crown of candles. Saint Lucia once carried food to give to people, so her hands were too full to hold the candles. The “Saint Lucias” of the present may carry Swedish saffron buns and gingerbread.

6. Las Posadas is a Spanish tradition primarily celebrated in Mexico and Guatemala, from December 16-24. It honors the journey Mary and her partner traveled to find a vacancy in an inn, or posada, to birth Jesus. There is a re-enactment of this in communities where people walk the street going door to door with lit candles or sparklers, singing and saying prayers. After, there are big feasts with fruit, tamales, and the children might hit a star-shaped piñata full of candy.


7. Dong Zhi is winter solstice in China around December 21. The shortest, darkest day was recognized and celebrated as the beginning of longer days over 2,000 years ago, but from what I’ve noticed, there aren’t such big celebrations of it anymore. 

8. Yule Solstice, a Pagan holiday on December 21, means “wheel” of old European tradition. Christians adopted this into their form, Christmas, on the 25th. Many of the Christmas traditions come from this solstice tradition including decorating an evergreen and the elves concept where sun spirit creators cohabitated. Candles ward off evil and attract the sun’s return. A Yule log from a big oak or ash tree burns as the hearth, warmth, and light in a home. The last of the log is to be burned in the new year. The longer it burns, the quicker the sun returns. The log is for protection.

Lit Christmas market in Krakow, Poland

9. Shabe Yalda is a celebration of light on December 21 in central Asia (Iran, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan). Ancient Persians would light fires. Traditionally people come together to tell stories, poetry, and eat (particularly seasonally summer fruit). Watermelon is said to grant immunity to the cold winter when eaten this night. Pomegranates are for rebirth and “glow of life.”  It is a night full of hope.

10. Pancha Ganapati is not typically observed by traditional Hindus but honors Lord Ganesha and originates in Hawaii. It lasts from December 21-25 each day having a designated color and purpose. Yellow solves strains in interpersonal relations, blue is for sending apologies to people far away, red resolves work, business, and debt related issues, green is for home beauty, art, and discussions about Hindu practice within families, and orange is about love and peace. Color for connection and communication? I’m all in.

11. Soyal is the winter solstice of the Hopi people from northern Arizona during December 21/22. They rely on Kachinas, the hundreds of spirits to emerge from the mountains to bring back the sun to guide them. Prior to their arrival, the Hopi people prepare by creating prayer sticks on behalf of the whole community, their homes, the plants and animals. The ceremonies are private among the people, but there is a dance where the moves influence whether the sun will shine.  

12. Kwanzaa is celebrated from December 26 for seven nights to honor unity, culture, and empowerment in the African American community. Although developed in California, the name originates from Swahili, a language spoken in eastern African countries. Even the extra “a” is purposeful in creating a seven letter word. The seven symbols are the mat, crops, corn, unity cup, gifts, candle holder, candles. The candles lit represent the core principles unity, self determination, collective work/responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith. Three are red (struggle) one black in center (for the people), and three green (hope for the future).

Have I left one out? Go light a candle, and may your darkest days sparkle.

Angel in Krakow, Poland

References

Alaska: https://www.anchorage.net/blog/winter-holiday-traditions-in-anchorage/

Diwali: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HrrW3rO51ak

Dia de las Velitas: https://www.colombia.co/actualidad/especiales/por-que-celebramos-el-dia-de-las-velitas/

Bodhi: https://www.npr.org/2020/12/05/943453999/buddhists-prepare-to-observe-bodhi-day-when-siddhartha-gautama-became-buddha

Saint Lucia: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x0LdxSn02PU 

Las Posadas: https://www.mamalatinatips.com/2015/12/how-to-celebrate-las-posadas.html

Yule: https://www.sacredearthjourneys.ca/blog/traditions-and-symbols-of-yule/

Yalda: https://persianmama.com/shabe-yalda-a-persian-celebration/, https://www.mypersiancorner.com/celebrate-yalda-night-like-an-iranian/

Pancha Ganapati: https://www.internationalcenter.org/2015/12/07/december-holidays/

Soyal :https://www.wilderutopia.com/traditions/soyal-ceremony-hopi-kachinas-dance-at-winter-solstice/

Kwanzaa: https://www.history.com/news/5-things-you-may-not-know-about-kwanzaa

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