The winter solstice is Monday, Dec. 21, this year and marks the longest night and shortest day of the year.
The midwinter celestial event—marked in the northern hemisphere when the North Pole is tilted farthest away from the sun—was widely celebrated in cultures around the world going back to Ancient Rome and further.
During the seven-day Roman Saturnalia honoring Saturn, the father of the gods, courts, schools and businesses closed, and the regular order of things was turned topsy-turvy. Masters served their slaves. The Romans postponed wars, and people forgave quarrels and grudges.
The ancient Incans celebrated with a festival to honor the sun god Inti. Scandinavians celebrated the pre-Christian Festival of Juul and lit fires to celebrate the sun as days began to get longer after the winter solstice. In pre-Christianity Poland, people observed the solstice by showing forgiveness and sharing food during Gody.
Modern day observances that fall on or near the winter solstice include Christmas and Hanukkah. The Hopi Indians of northern Arizona celebrate Soyal with ceremonies, dances and gift giving. The Persian festival of Yalda, held over from ancient times, is a celebration of the winter solstice in Iran, when families celebrate with food and sometimes stay up all night to greet the sun after the longest night of the year. Don Zhi, celebrated in China around the solstice, is a time for families to get together and celebrate the preceding year.