Science says December 21st marks the official beginning of winter. It says that this day is when the sun is lowest in the sky … but Indigenous people always knew that.
And Indigenous people mark the changes in different ways.
Winter begins on the “shortest day of the year.”
It's the opposite of the summer solstice- where we experience the longest amount of daylight. This happens every year between June 20 and June 22. Every day after that, we see a few minutes less sun which culminates in the winter solstice.
So now every day will offer more sunlight. The exact time of this year’s solstice is Saturday, December 21, at 9:19 pm EST. It is the astronomical moment when the earth is positioned furthest away from the sun.
“It is a time for rest for a lot of the animals and for the plants,” says Wilfred Buck, an elder from the Opaskwayak Cree Nation. “It is time for the people to replenish their spirit. It is time for them to dream.”
The Hopi call winter their “quiet time” and observe with special prayers for the world. Native Hawaiians observe their Makahiki season, taking time to reconcile, renew and forgive.
While some solstice traditions have been rooted in cultural knowledge, some have evolved to take modern forms like the Dōngzhì Festival in China. This festival is also known as the winter festival. It began after Chinese ancestors used a sundial to determine the point of the winter solstice. They wanted to celebrate the return of the sun. Now the festival is three days. People eat dumplings and take time to worship their ancestors.
Other winter solstice traditions have been popularized by dominant culture. Do you remember in 2012 when people thought the world was going to end? This was supposed to happen on December 21, the day of the winter solstice. This happened because of an inaccurate read of the Maya Long Count Calendar. Though this turned out to be false, the Maya still take time to observe the sacred time. In Belize, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico, winter solstice celebrations are slated to happen tomorrow. They now take form in rituals, offerings and even music festivals.
In New Mexico, the Zuni observe Sha’lak’o, a ceremony observed through dance. The winter solstice is the start of the Zuni New Year. The event is generally open to the public but photography is not allowed.
Several miles North, another place of importance is Chaco Canyon, a historical park located near the Four Corners. Many Southwest tribes have origin stories of Chaco as a place of large cultural significance. Only recently have scientists validated those beliefs.
At Kin Kletso, a Chaco Great House, scientists have discovered notches in the building walls that tell the time of the winter solstice based on where the shadow falls. Though the buildings of Chaco Canyon were constructed nearly several years ago, the shadows of Kin Kletso still tell the time of the winter solstice.
Others also observe winter in places where they have adapted to nature’s intense landscape.
In Utqiaġvik, Alaska, (once known as Barrow) the Inupiaq people live in a place where sunlight is scarce during the winter. It’s dark for 67 days after the sun sets in mid-November until it rises again in mid-January. Some 500 miles away Fairbanks experiences only a brief amount of daylight. This year the sun will shine in Fairbanks for 3 hours and 41 minutes.
“The winter solstice is an opportunity for Indigenous people to reconnect to the natural world, sharpen our senses, and access our most powerful selves,” writes Sarah Sunshine Manning, Shoshone-Paiute and Chippewa-Cree. Her essay for NDN Collective, is called Acknowledging the Winter Solstice is a Decolonial Act for Indigenous People, and lists ways to observe the winter solstice. That list includes cooking and sharing a meal with loved ones, and practicing self care.
“We know and our ancestors knew that in order to show up for our communities as good relatives and as energized agents of change, we have to be grounded and strong,” Manning writes. “Replenishing your spirit in a time of growing social unrest is also a revolutionary act.”
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