Yes, that’s right, it’s the shortest day of the year: On one hand, we’ll gradually get more sunlight hours and hopefully fewer symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder as the next few months progress. On the other, months of cold, wind, and generally unpleasant outdoor sensations still lay ahead.
Either way, some celebration involving presents and candles is surely in order. After all, as wikipedia reminds us, “In antiquity, the winter solstice was immensely important because communities were not assured to live through the winter […] Starvation was common in winter between January to April, also known as ‘the famine months.’”
Why not take a wikipedia-sponsored gander at the truly underrepresented winter festivities?
HumanLight: If you’re too staunch of a secular humanist for even the über-commercialized and non-religious versions of Christmas and Chanukah we celebrate in the U.S., why not wish your friends a Happy HumanLight, with warm wishes of “humanity, reason, hope,” and completely fabricated holidays?
Dongzhì: This Chinese celebration of the winter solstice cannot be properly transliterated in valid xhtml characters and instantiates the famous yin-yang balance in the universe as a transitional day in the Chinese calendar.
The wikipedia explanation of the correspondence between the winter solstice and the yin-yang symbol is slightly confusing. Chinesefortunecalendar.com explains that the yin-yang symbol itself originated from ancient measurements of the changing length and position of the shadow cast by a fixed pole over the course of the year, which were recorded on a circular representation of the year divided into four seasons marked by the solstices and equinoxes (and further divided into six segments each).
Anyway, on Dongzhì, which is represented at the bottom of the yin-yang, families get together and eat Tangyuan, balls of glutinous rice served in broth.
Yalda: Also not properly transliterated due to the egregious lack of support for macrons in xhtml, Yalda is the Persian celebration of the birth of the Sun god, Mithra—quite a logical celebration date for the birth of the sun, considering that, from the vantage point of the northern hemisphere, it gets progressively stronger in the ensuing days. Yalda was traditionally celebrated with bonfires, feasts, and, most interestingly, what Wikipedia calls “temporary subversion of order,” in which masters and servants apparently switched roles; today it’s a secular celebration featuring dried fruit.
Yule: Yule, which is indeed the origin of “yuletide cheer,” was celebrated by Scandinavian and German pagans with feasts and “the sacrifice of a pig for the god Freyr” (presumably only in Scandinavia, as Freyr is the Norse god of fertility). Wiccans and German Neopagans continue to celebrate Yule with food, gifts, and ritual sacrifice known as blót.
Soyal: The Hopitu Shinumu (more commonly known as the Hopi) celebrate Soyal to “bring the sun back from its long winter slumber” by making prayer sticks and opening sacred underground ritual chambers.
Saturnalia: The Roman commemoration of the dedication of their temple to their god Saturn was celebrated with sacrifices, gift-giving, gambling, and—again!—a temporary role-reversal between masters and slaves (Hegel would be so proud). The Romans also untied the statue of Saturn, which apparently was kept bound for the rest of the year.
Karachun: Slavic pagans celebrated Karachun as the day on which evil powers are at their peak, signified by the weakness of the sun—sort of the reverse of the logic behind Yalda. The Slavic sun god dies on the winter solstice and is resurrected the following day. His death was commemorated with feasts and bonfires in honor of dead ancestors.
There you have it. Forget Chrismakah, have a Happy Yuldongaldsoysaturnchun!