The shortest day and longest night of the year inspire mystical celebrations, both old and new, in anticipation of the sun’s return. In 2018 in the northern hemisphere, the winter solstice is December 21. Remember, the days just get longer from here!

St. Lucia Day, Scandinavia

St. Lucia Day, ScandinaviaLittle Adventures/Shutterstock

Like many days we celebrate, ancient festivals observing the winter solstice merged with newer traditions to create the holiday season as we know it today. In Scandinavia, St. Lucia Day on December 13 (the solstice by the old calendar) marks the start of the Christmas season with a procession of young women in white robes, red sashes, and wreaths of candles on their heads, lighting the way through the darkness of winter. Honoring St. Lucy, this festival incorporated pagan winter solstice celebrations marked by bonfires. Gingersnaps, saffron-flavored buns, and glogg are also traditionally served. Find out the history of your favorite Christmas traditions.

Dong Zhi, China

Colourful Chinese glutinous rice balls aka Tang Yuan aka Tangyuan are made during Winter Solstice Festival aka Dongzhi. Winter Solstice falls on 22nd December this year.mintography/Shutterstock

This thousands-of-years-old festival on December 21, 22, or 23 is celebrated with family gatherings and a big meal, including rice balls called tang yuan. Thought to mark the end of the harvest season, the holiday also has roots in the Chinese concept of yin and yang: After the solstice, the abundance of darkness in winter will begin to be balanced with the light of the sun.

Stonehenge gathering, England

Stonehenge gathering England1000 Words/Shutterstock

Although no one knows exactly why the ancient circle of Stonehenge was built, there’s no denying it lines up with the movements of the sun. Archaeological research suggests winter solstice festivals happened at Stonehenge—and modern revelers have taken up the tradition, gathering at dawn the day after the longest night (this year, December 22) to witness the magical occurrence of the sun rising through the stones. The best part? It’s free of charge, although parking is limited. Visitors can even walk right up to the stones, an area usually roped off, for this peaceful and sacred celebration. Read about more things you didn’t know about the holiday season.