• Notes From The Frontier

Happy Winter Solstice!


Many thousands of years before the Christian Christmas or the Jewish Hanukkah were established, indigenous people celebrated the Winter Solstice.


The seasons, the sun, the moon, the earth, Nature—these have been honored and worshipped since humans were human, since the most ancient times. One of the major holidays of the year celebrated by many indigenous people, including North American Indians, was and still is the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year, December 21st. And, the Winter Solstice is becoming more popular today as many turn to honoring Nature and Native traditions.

What is the Winter Solstice? Quite simply, it's the shortest day of the year, the first day of winter. The earth takes a full year—365 days— to travel around the sun. And, because the earth is tilted on its axis, the angle of the sun's light changes at it goes around the sun. Native Americans and ancient indigenous peoples around the world honored four days corresponding to the four seasons each year, created by the sun and where the earth was in relation to the sun. Winter Solstice honors the shortest day of sunlight and the beginning day of winter (see photograph below, “Changing Seasons”). After that day, the hours of sunlight begin to lengthen. Summer Solstice honors the longest day of sunlight in the year. The Vernal or Spring Equinox marks the first day of Spring when day and night are roughly the same length. The Autumnal Equinox marks the first day of Fall when day and night are also the same length.

The Winter Solstice was extremely important to indigenous peoples for many reasons. For one, starvation was common during the first months of winter. Winter Solstice marked the beginning of about four months of winter hardship and food shortages. To combat these food shortages, cattle were butchered beginning at the Winter Solstice so they didn’t have to be fed and the people would have fresh meat. Some Native tribes also produced beers and wines and other fermented drinks. These drinks were finally fermented around the Winter Solstice and ready to drink.


The Winter Solstice also marked the turning point when sunlight finally started to increase and warm the earth toward spring, so it was a time of hope, renewal, birth and rebirth, and honoring deities of life, death and rebirth. Some Native tribes venerated the sun as a diety, so this day cited the sun’s increasing power.

There are ancient monuments around the world that were built to honor the Winter Solstice and other astronomical events. Stonehenge in England is the most famous. And Newgrange in Ireland is another site. But North America has it own “Woodhenge,” the Cahokia Mounds, just northwest of St. Louis near the Mississippi River. It is the largest archaeological site in the United States and marks the ancient city of the sophisticated Native American culture called The Mississippians. There, a magnificent city existed between 600-1400 A.D. The site contains 120 earthwork mounds and a circle of posts called “Woodhenge,” that mark the winter and summer solstices and the two equinoxes.


Today, one of the most famous Winter Solstice events is held annually on Dec. 21 at Cahokia at sunrise. Thousands go to see the sunrise there and an archeologist explains the discovery, the function and how nations of ancient Native Americans observed the Winter Solstice for a thousand years.

Other such ancient Native sites exist in other areas of North America, such as The Great Serpent Mound in Peebles, Ohio, where a huge snake effigy marks the Winter Solstice. The serpent’s head aligns with the Spring Solstice and the tails points to the sunrise of the Winter Solstice.


Native American tribes celebrated the Winter Solstice in different ways, depending on their spiritual beliefs, survival traditions, and other life ways.

The Zuni Pueblo, for example, grew corn, beans, squash, sunflowers, and other crops. Harvest celebrations and honoring the growing of food was extremely important to them. During the Winter Solstice, they celebrate Shalako in which Zuni shamans dress as giant bird deities to ask for rain, blessings and balance for the coming seasons and their agricultural year. The Zuni celebration is considered sacred and very private, and such celebrations are rarely witnessed by non-tribal members.


The Hopi of northern Arizona celebrate the Winter Solstice holiday of Soyal with rituals of purification, rejuvenation, giving thanks, dancing and gift-giving. The Hopi honor protective spirits from the mountains called “kachinas.” Shamans dressed as kachinas and kachina dolls grace the ceremonies, as do hand-crafted prayer sticks.

The Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico celebrate haamaaha at the Winter Solstice with storytelling of the coyote, stories of heroes, stories of the animals, sharing of knowledge and praying with prayer sticks.

The Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico celebrate haamaaha at the Winter Solstice with storytelling of the coyote, stories of heroes, stories of the animals, sharing of knowledge and praying with prayer sticks.


Assiniboine/Sioux of South Dakota celebrate Waniyetu as a time for gathering can'sa'sa [red willow bark] while the Thunder is gone.


Prayer sticks are hand-crafted and used in Winter Solstice ceremonies by many tribes. They are often made of willow limbs with the bark stripped off and the end curled into a circle. The stick is decorated with feathers, often turkey, and adorned with rawhide and a small rawhide or red cloth pouch with tobacco.

The Apache share a meal together, then they visit and smoke the pipe. After that they put a bundle at their feet and tell stories of their ancestors and tribal legends.


The Ojibwe / Chippewa tribe sit around a campfire. They offer a storyteller a gift of tobacco before the story begins. Then the storyteller recounts ancient tales about animals and Nature.


The Blackfeet tribe in Montana marked the Winter Stolstice as the “return of the sun,” called “Naatosi.” Beginning on this day, they faced their teepees toward the east and rising sun. The day marked the beginning of celebration, dancing, singing, drumming and games, a time of rejuvenation, giving thanks and prayers for good hunting and bountiful coming seasons.

Sarah Sunshine Manning, a Shoshone-Paiute and Chippewa-Cree who is the Director of Communications for the NDN Collective (“NDN” is an abbreviation for “In-di-an”), writes:


“In its period of darkness, the winter solstice is an opportunity to go inward with deep intention, to care for our spiritual selves, our bodies and minds, our loved ones and families, and to prepare for the longer days ahead.”

She suggests that we can celebrate Winter Solstice by giving thanks for our blessings, showing appreciation to others, saying a prayer or holding a personal moment to honor your home and lighting a fire, reflecting on Nature around you, and being kind to yourself. Good advice for every day, but especially for the darkest day of the year.


Winter Solstice blessings to you all from

Notes from the Frontier!


You may also enjoy these related posts:

• Native American Moons

https://www.notesfromthefrontier.com/post/native-american-moons


"Happy Winter Solstice!" is a new post, first posted on Facebook on December 21, 2020.


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