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  • Writer's pictureDavid Carlson

December 20, 2023: We celebrate the shortest day and the coming of the light

Wednesday, December 20, 2023: We celebrate the shortest day and the coming of the light for all humanity.

In the last several Sunday celebrations at Emmaus we delved into the meaning of light and I encourage everyone to look back through our past liturgies on this blog and read through the heartflep prayers and readings about light. Tomorrow we celebrate the shortest day of the year. The Winter Solstice.

I'm sure our ancestors from the distant past, including our Neanderthal forebears were aware of this turning from dark night to daybreak and the return of the sun. This is a cosmic event and since long before recorded history, the winter solstice and the subsequent “return” of the sun have inspired celebrations and rituals in alll societies around the world. It is truly a celebration for all humanity.

The winter solstice is the shortest day and longest night of the year. In the Northern Hemisphere, it takes place in late December; in the Southern Hemisphere, it occurs in June. From Ancient Romans to Indigenous Americans, cultures around the world have long held feasts and celebrated holidays around the winter solstice.

I found this lovely poem by Susan Cooper called The Shortest Day which is a prayer for light and peace. There is also a YouTube reading of the illustrated book which follows (see the link after the poem).

The Shortest Day

And so the Shortest Day came and the year died

And everywhere down the centuries of the snow-white world

Came people singing, dancing,

To drive the dark away.


They lighted candles in the winter trees;

They hung their homes with evergreen;

They burned beseeching fires all night long

To keep the year alive.


And when the new year’s sunshine blazed awake

They shouted, reveling.

Through all the frosty ages you can hear them

Echoing behind us — listen!


All the long echoes, sing the same delight,

This Shortest Day,


As promise wakens in the sleeping land:

They carol, feast, give thanks,

And dearly love their friends,

And hope for peace.


And now so do we, here, now,

This year and every year.

The Shortest Day by Susan Cooper

Here are a few notes on other celebrations of the Solstice written by historian Susan Pruitt. Each one reminds us we are not alone - and never have been as we accompany each other through life. The coming of light is woven into our DNA.


Western culture owes many of the traditional midwinter celebrations—including those of Christmas—to Saturnalia, an ancient Roman solstice celebration dedicated to the Saturn, the god of agriculture and time. Though it started out as a one-day celebration earlier in December, this pagan festival later expanded into a riotous weeklong party stretching from December 17 to 24. During this jolliest and most popular of Roman festivals, social norms fell away as everyone indulged in gambling, drinking, feasting and giving gifts.


St. Lucia’s Day

This traditional festival of lights in Scandinavia honors St. Lucia, one of the earliest Christian martyrs, but was incorporated with earlier Norse solstice traditions after many Norsemen converted to Christianity around 1000 A.D. According to the old Julian Calendar, December 13 (the date that is traditionally given as the day in 304 A.D. when the Romans killed Lucia for bringing food to persecuted Christians hiding in Rome) was also the shortest day of the year.


As a symbol of light, Lucia and her feast day blended naturally with solstice traditions such as lighting fires to scare away spirits during the longest, darkest night of the year. On St. Lucia’s day, girls in Scandinavia wear white dresses with red sashes and wreaths of candles on their heads, as an homage to the candles Lucia wore on her head to light her way as she carried the forbidden food in her arms.


Dong Zhi

The Chinese celebration of the winter solstice, Dong Zhi (which means “Winter Arrives”) welcomes the return of longer days and the corresponding increase in positive energy in the year to come. Occurring only six weeks before the Chinese New Year, the festival has its own significance for many people, and is believed to be the day when everyone gets one year older. The celebration may have begun as a harvest festival, when farmers and fisherman took time off to celebrate with their families.


Shab-e Yalda

On the longest night of the year, Iranians all over the world celebrate the triumph of Mithra, the Sun God, over darkness in the ancient festival of Shab-e Yalda (which translates to “Night of Birth”). According to tradition, people gather together on the longest night of year to protect each other from evil, burning fires to light their way through the darkness and performing charitable acts. Friends and family join in making wishes, feasting on nuts, pomegranates and other festive foods and reading poetry, especially the work of the 14th-century Persian poet Hafiz. Some stay awake all night to rejoice in the moment when the sun rises, banishing evil and announcing the arrival of goodness.


Inti Raymi

In Peru, like the rest of the Southern Hemisphere, the winter solstice is celebrated in June. The Inti Raymi (Quechua for “sun festival”), which takes place on the solstice, is dedicated to honoring Inti, the sun god. Before the Spanish conquest, the Incas fasted for three days before the solstice. Before dawn on the fourth day, they went to a ceremonial plaza and waited for the sunrise.


When it appeared, they crouched down before it, offering golden cups of chicha (a sacred beer made from fermented corn). Animals—including llamas—were sacrificed during the ceremony, and the Incas used a mirror to focus the sun’s rays and kindle a fire. After the conquest, the Spaniards banned the Inti Raymi holiday, but it was revived in the 20th century (with mock sacrifices) and continues today.



For the Zuni, one of the Native American Pueblo peoples in western New Mexico, the winter solstice signifies the beginning of the year, and is marked with a ceremonial dance called Shalako. After fasting, prayer and observing the rising and setting of the sun for several days before the solstice, the Pekwin, or “Sun Priest” traditionally announces the exact moment of itiwanna, the rebirth of the sun, with a long, mournful call.


With that signal, the rejoicing and dancing begin, as 12 kachina clowns in elaborate masks dance along with the Shalako themselves—12-foot-high effigies with bird heads, seen as messengers from the gods. After four days of dancing, new dancers are chosen for the following year, and the yearly cycle begins again.

Other videos of the season:

The story of Las Posadas from New Mexico

The Legend of the Poinsettia by Tomie dePaola read aloud

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