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Celebrating the Winter Solstice

Celebrating the Winter Solstice

As the sun sets on December 21, people in the Northern Hemisphere will celebrate the winter solstice—the year’s longest night. In most places, that means traditions, togetherness, and the company of people you love as you wrap up the old year and get ready for the new.

Here are a few of our favorite traditions from around the world, followed by some ideas for marking the solstice with your family.


Iranians have observed the winter solstice with the festival of Yalda since ancient times. These days, families celebrate by gathering around a traditional square table with blankets draped over it and an electric heater beneath. Everybody covers themselves with the blankets and sticks their legs under the table to keep warm and cozy. Once settled in, they enjoy a long night of reading poetry and literature, talking, and enjoying baked sweets, nuts, pomegranates, and watermelon (a treat to help resist winter colds). In Tehran, Iran’s capital, the festival means famously ferocious traffic jams, bustling lines at sweet shops, and a feeling of happy anticipation as people rush through the city to spend the year’s longest night with the people they love.

Yuzu Bath

Fruit also features in the Japanese winter solstice tradition of the yuzu bath, which is often taken at a bathhouse or hot spring. Yuzu is a popular fruit in Japan that tastes like a blend of lemon, mandarin orange, and grapefruit. Its strong, citrusy scent is thought to promote relaxation, eliminate aches and pains, and prevent winter colds. So it’s no surprise that people love immersing themselves in hot baths with small yellow yuzu bobbing all over the surface! 

Burning the Clocks

Many solstice traditions are hundreds or thousands of years old, but people still come up with new ones! The Burning the Clocks festival in Brighton, England, began in 1994. Each year, people parade to Brighton’s beach carrying lanterns made of willow and paper, then toss them into a bonfire on the sand. Fireworks follow to further light up this festive night.

Together Time

For a fun family activity on December 21, talk with your kids about how it’s the shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, but the longest day in the Southern Hemisphere. Then get out a map or globe and ask your kids to pick a city on the other side of the world from you. Look up how long the day is there, compare it to how long it is at home, and ask what your kids think! You might want to look at the weather and compare it as well. If your kids are really engaged, you can tell them about how every day is a little shorter or longer than the day before it and suggest writing down sunrise and sunset times for a week. See if they notice them change.

For younger kids, you might want to talk about feelings instead. Try explaining that it’s the shortest day of the year (or the longest, if you live in the Southern Hemisphere), and that starting tomorrow, the days will get longer and longer (or shorter and shorter) until the end of June. Then ask your kids how they feel about that and whether they think you should celebrate. You might be surprised by their answers!