CHS students celebrate winter solstice in different ways, describe cultural significance

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Submitted Photo: Catherine Byrne

In preparation for Christmas, their family’s celebration around the time of the winter solstice, sophomore Catherine Byrne and her mother set up their Christmas tree. “For us, the focus is not all about the decorations and the presents and more about our religion. And we always talk about how much we care for each other and how grateful we are for each other. It’s a very sentimental time for us,” Byrne said.

Raghav Sriram

While it might seem unusual to celebrate the winter solstice, the shortest day and darkest time of the year, many students at this school look forward to holidays around this time and have already begun preparing for celebration. 

One such student is sophomore Aeneas Hoffman, who celebrates the Chinese winter solstice festival, Dongzhi, with his family.

“(On) my mom’s side of the family, we are very rich in Chinese culture. To celebrate the solstice we participate in the Dongzhi festival. Basically, we celebrate the season’s turning point towards the warmer, lighter days of spring. It’s essentially a time during the depths of winter to enjoy a hearty fortifying family meal that raises hopes for spring’s arrival,” Hoffman said. “The (Dongzhi festival) marries the winter solstice with nature’s harmonious balance of yin and yang energy. From this point forward Dongzhi—which basically means the extreme of winter—and the negative Yin quantities of darkness and cold give way to the more positive Yang qualities of light and warmth.”

Hoffman is not the only student who is looking forward to the winter solstice, which this year falls on Dec. 21 on the Western Calendar. Sophomore Shreya Krishnan said she too is excited to celebrate the Winter Solstice through the Hindu festival Pongal with her family.

While many see Pongal as the celebration of the Winter Solstice and the start of the new harvest, it has multiple interpretations, even within the Hindu community. Some see it as an Indian Thanksgiving while others see it as an auspicious Hindu day. 

Krishan said she celebrates it as the Winter Solstice. “At home the way we celebrate is by making pongal, a south Indian rice dish. There are two varieties: a more savory kind and a more sweet kind, so at home we make both of those and I really like that food. We give that as an offering to God and then we do a small pooja and then eat the pongal.”

Social studies teacher Ryan Ringenberg said he plans on spending the winter solstice with his family and the comforts of his home this year due to the pandemic.

He said, “It’s very interesting to hear the numerous ways different ethnicities and cultures celebrate what is usually the darkest and gloomiest time of the year. Personally, I celebrate the winter solstice with my family but it’s always nice to hear what other people are up to on this day.”

Sophomore Catherine Byrne also participates in a winter tradition.

“Normally, around the time of the winter solstice we celebrate Christmas by getting a Christmas Tree and going to church and opening presents,” she said. “And then normally the day after Christmas we always go to Montana to go skiing, but we probably are not going to go this year because of COVID.”

During the winter solstice last year, sophomore Aeneas Hoffman and his extended family enjoy a warm family meal in celebration of the Dongzhi Festival. Hoffman said his family celebrates Dongzhi annually just like any other national holiday, and that during the festival, they eat lamb dumplings and round glutinous rice balls filled with sweet sesame. (Submitted Photo: Aeneas Hoffman)

Hoffman said he has seen differences in the ways the two sides of his family celebrate the winter solstice.

“Unlike my mom’s side of the family, for my dad’s side, the culture isn’t nearly as rich with the celebration of the solstice. It’s fun trying to incorporate our dad into the festival and teach him Chinese culture, but in the end all that matters is everyone is going to have a good time and enjoy the food,” he said.

Despite the cold and dark of winter, students at this school have still found a reason to celebrate, even at the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Krishnan said, “I think part of the reason people celebrate the winter solstice is because the fact it is the darkest day of the year means that there is a light in the future that is coming and so celebrating the winter solstice is welcoming that light to come back in.”

Hoffman said he believes the winter solstice is a time to celebrate and be thankful for all you have.

“I see the winter solstice as an opportunity to just relive and relish the experiences of my ancestors because it’s not every day we get to enjoy a hearty meal. Especially during the cold winters and harsh times during the Han Dynasty, a meal like this would be very greatly cherished. So I think for me I really need to cherish this time of the year especially for this reason,” he said.

Byrne said she agreed. “For me, the winter solstice signifies the end of the year. I feel starting Thanksgiving, we start to look back at it more and all the memories that we’ve had,” she said. “It’s more of a time of making yourself happier. Looking back at your life and realizing how much you have and how happy you are for it.”

Ringenberg said, “No matter your culture, ethnicity or religion, I think you should spend the winter solstice remembering the past year’s events, especially this year with everything that has happened, and be thankful for making it through.”

Hoffman said, “I find the winter solstice special because it represents the darkest point of the year and I think everybody regardless of cultural differences should come and spend time together to ultimately lighten the day up and to hope for a better and brighter spring to come.” 

Sam Hawkins, Kruti Subbannavar
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