U.S. map of daylight hours for nine cities during the 2019 winter solstice
Winter solstice: December 21, 2019. Number of daylight hours on the shortest day of the year around the country.

A Winter Solstice Tradition

It was late December 2010, about a week before holiday revelry would make its annual flip to January reflection, when my roommate’s boyfriend presented our living room with an unusual invite: Did anyone want to go to his friend’s winter solstice party?

Solstice party? It was my first winter living in Chicago – maybe this was a thing here? “Sure,” I said. Anyway, both of my roommates were up for it. Whatever a solstice party was, at least I’d be in good company.

A Viking Toast

The celebration was at a small apartment just a few blocks from my own. When Justine, Barbra and I arrived, guests were lined up around the edges of the living room, cups in hand. Alex, our host, walked to the middle and gave us the rules. We were all to do a Viking toast: a boast of something we were proud of from the past year, a toast to another person we’d like to honor, and an oath for the year ahead.  

Candlelit dinner gathering
Photo: 10'000 Hours / Getty Images

It was a large group, maybe 40 of us, and the sharing lasted for a few hours. I’d never been to a gathering such as this before. Attendees toasted to a favorite teacher or dear colleague. They committed to recycling more, writing letters, planting a garden. And we celebrated our wins: running a marathon, going back to school, getting a promotion. The atmosphere was bright and warm, though the sun had set hours before.

The party wrapped up by midnight, but the idea of celebrating the solstice has stuck with me since – as it has for people across the world, for centuries.

Winter Solstice History

Winter solstice is the day with the shortest period of daylight of the year, when one of the Earth’s poles has its maximum tilt away from the sun. It happens twice a year – in the Northern Hemisphere toward the end of December, and in the Southern toward the end of June. The word “solstice” comes from the Latin sol, or sun, and sistere, to stand still. During the precise moment of the solstice, the moment when the pole is tilted the farthest from the sun, the glowing orb appears to stand still. In the United States the event – this year, December 21 – marks the beginning of winter.

For thousands of years, traditions and festivals have celebrated the solstice as an important day. Prehistoric cultures were deeply attuned to the seasons. Winter festivals were marked by feasting before going into the stretch when crops were the least plentiful. The wine and beer made earlier that year were usually finished fermenting at that time, and a tradition of toasting developed. The Viking toast or “symbel,” as it is sometimes called, can be traced all the way back to the pages of Beowulf.

Stonehenge in England. Photo: Bernd Feurich / Pexels

Winter Solstice Traditions Around the World

The winter solstice holds many curiosities. Stonehenge is perfectly aligned to the sunset on winter solstice, as is Newgrange in Ireland. St. Lucia Day, a festival of lights in Sweden, was originally celebrated on the winter solstice.

Newgrange in Ireland. Photo: Thomas Gun / Wikimedia Commons

From Saturnalia in ancient Rome, a festival to honor the agricultural god Saturn, to Yalda night in Iran, where families gather to share food and drink and read poetry, to an apartment full of graduate students in Illinois, groups have been gathering together across cultures and time to mark the passing of the longest night.

Yalda night gathering
Yalda night in Iran. Photo: Jasmin Merdan / Getty Images

After attending that first solstice gathering, I knew I had to host one myself. I love the premise of a party centered on sharing successes – especially on what would otherwise be a dark, freezing winter night. Throwing my own solstice celebration quickly became my favorite winter tradition.

Today, a decade later, I’ve toasted the solstice with as few as two or as many as 25 people of all ages, from my 8-year-old neighbor to my grandparents.

This year, I already know the toast I’ll give at my party – to my friend Shannon, for pursuing a career change to library science – and the oath I’ll share: to take my first 100-mile bike trip. I can’t wait to hear what everyone else has to say.