Winter solstice essentials: (1) family; (2) good food

The winter solstice is when the sun travels its shortest path; and so it’s the day with the least sunlight. This year, in the Northern Hemisphere, the winter solstice falls on Tuesday, Dec. 21.

There’s lots of names for the winter solstice—like the “extreme of winter” and “the longest night.” But out of this cold and dark phenomenon comes the tradition of gathering, food and light to endure the winter gloom.

Here are the basics about five winter solstice celebrations:

1. Yalda Night

Pomegranate with text "Happy Yalda" surrounded by the moon, watermelon and Hafez poetry.

Yalda Night, also known as Chelleh Night, is an Iranian winter solstice celebration of the longest and darkest night of the year. The word yalda means “birth” (as in, of the sun). Yalda Night practices were traditionally done to ward off evil during the long night—but, today, they’re more about reconnecting with loved ones.

The winter solstice is a time for friends and family to get together, eat, drink tea and sharbat (fruit syrup and water), sing songs and tell stories. Families light candles and wait for the sun to come up to celebrate the dawn of the first day of winter.

And, of course, the spread is divine—at a Yalda Night celebration you might find Khoresh Bademjan—an eggplant stew with beef—and Ash Reshteh—a noodle soup of beans and herbs topped with kashk (a fermented yogurt product). Mm, delicious!

Nuts and red fruits such as pomegranates, watermelon, apples and persimmons are also enjoyed. Their colouring symbolizes the hue of dawn and eating them is supposed to help immunize you against catching the winter cold. There are even cakes made to resemble watermelon! You’ll also find traditional desserts like fereni (rice custard) and sholeh zard (saffron rice pudding).

Two people holding hands and reading poetry.

Many families read poetry, especially the Persian poet Hazfez’s Divan of Hafez. Other works include Persian mythology like Shahnameh and Khosro va Shirin.

A poetic epic or tragic romance? Decisions, decisions!

2. Dongzhi Festival

The Chinese Dongzhi festival, known as the “extreme of winter” and the arrival of winter, is a time for family gatherings and a special meal.

Orange and red glutinous rice balls and soup in a bowl.

Families eat chewy tangyuan (glutinous rice balls) in a warm sweet ginger syrup soup. Often dyed pink, green, and yellow, tangyuan can be plain or have sweet or savoury filling. Popular sweet flavours include red bean, peanut, and black sesame.

Jiaozi (dumplings), mutton soup and red bean sticky rice are also common dishes to eat during the winter solstice.

Assorted meats, dumplings and tofu in a hotpot surrounded by condiments and ingredients

Hot pot, a method of cooking with simmering broth, is popular during family gatherings. Hot pot ingredients range from thinly sliced meat and leafy vegetables to vermicelli and tofu. If you’ve mastered sneaking away the last french fry when your siblings aren’t looking, your skills will come in handy here!

3. Taiwanese Dongzhi Festival

During the Taiwanese Dongzhi festival, families get together to make tangyuan themselves—by hand (incredible!). This act symbolizes reunion.

Families pray, worship and offer food to ancestors. Warm foods, like duck stew and ginger chicken soup, are popular dishes.

Nine-layer glutinous rice cakes are also made, shaped like animals such as chickens, tortoises and pigs, that are meant to bring good luck. Check out those colours!

4. Dongji Festival

During the Korean Dongji festival, people traditionally made patjuk (red bean porridge) and offered bowls at a family shrine. While this is less common today, families still get together to eat patjuk

Patjuk is made of red bean and often paired with rice flour dumplings called saealshim. The red colour of this dish was traditionally believed to ward off evil spirits.

5. Saint Lucia’s Day

This traditional Swedish festival of lights honours Saint Lucia (also known as Saint Lucy) and incorporates earlier Norse winter solstice traditions. Saint Lucia, the Christian martyr, symbolizes light and the festival lights scare away evil spirits during the long night. 

In Scandanavian countries, Saint Lucia Day—celebrated on December 13th—also marks the beginning of the Christmas season and represents hope during the darkest time of the year. 

Procession for St. Lucia Day with children in gowns, a choir and candles

The holiday usually includes a procession featuring Saint Lucia in a white dress, red sash and a crown wreath of candles made of lingonberry branches that remain evergreen. These branches symbolize new life in winter. There are also handmaidens, star boys and children dressed as gnomes or Christmas elves

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Families eat cookies, pepparkakor (ginger snap biscuits) and lussekatter (raisin and saffron buns). They represent St. Lucia carrying food to the Christians hiding in the Roman catacombs

Whichever celebrations you’ll take part in this winter, IGNITE wishes you a happy holiday season!

Spending the solstice in Canada for the first time? We got you. Here’s everything you need to survive your first Canadian winter.

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