In ancient times, the Chinese people celebrated the Winter Solstice Festival (Dong Zhi) by visiting relatives and friends, in much the same way as the Chinese Lunar New Year. There is customary feasting, and businesses will close up for the day. Glutinous floor balls known as “tang yuan” are consumed as a symbol of family unity and harmony on this day.
What do we mean when we use the term “winter solstice”?
A solstice is an astronomical term used when describing the day of the year when the sun is furthest from the equator. Two solstices exist, consisting of one solstice during the summer, which lengthens the day to the maximum, and another solstice during the winter, which shortens the day to the minimum during the year. Timing of these vary depending on which particular hemisphere you are focusing on.
The winter solstice is caused by the Earth reaching its furthest point away from the sun. As the Earth circles the sun it simultaneously spins on its axis. When this tilt occurs, one hemisphere is further away from the sun and so it is in winter. At the same time, the other hemisphere is closer to the sun and has summer.
The word solstice is derived from “solstitium”, which is a Latin word. The word solstitium is derived from the Latin word “sol”, or sun, and “stitium”, which translates to stop. When the solstice occurs, the sun looks like it has done exactly that. It reaches nearly the same elevation at noon every day during the several days prior to and following the solstice.
December 21st or 22nd are the choice of days that the winter solstices happen and the sun beams right over the tropic of Capricorn. In the southern hemisphere, winter solstice is celebrated on June 20th or 21st. This is the time when the sun is located just above the tropic of Cancer.
The winter solstice always marks the shortest day of the year and the longest night of the year. Most cultures consider this day to be the middle of winter in their calendars. The date of solstice has surprisingly only moved by one day in the past three thousand years.
Due to the fact that the sun seemed to be reborn as the days grew longer, a lot of ancient cultures naturally celebrated this time of rebirth as the winter solstice.
Today, festivals of light are still celebrated by some cultures. In addition to the Chinese Dong Zhi festival, the Germanic cultures celebrate Yule and Hindus celebrate Diwali, a festival of light.