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What is Soyal?

Mary McMahon
By
Updated May 23, 2024
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Soyal is a traditional solstice celebration which is held by the Hopi Indians on the day and night of the winter solstice. Many cultures all over the world celebrate the solstice in various ways, since the shortest day of the year carries a lot of symbolism for cultures which live by the cycles of the seasons. For the Hopi, the Soyal ceremony is one of the most important ceremonies of the year, and it is also an excellent excuse for a party, and a chance to socialize with friends and neighbors.

During this winter festival, the Hopi perform ceremonies which are intended to call the sun back from its winter sleep. The Hopi believe that the sun god has traveled far from the tribe on the solstice, so they use warriors and other powerful members of the tribe to coax the sun back. Soyal is also traditionally a time for purification and blessings, and it marks the turning of the year. In addition to performing specific ceremonies on Soyal, many Hopi also exchange gifts and well wishes.

The Soyal ceremony is preceded by gifts of feathers bound with cotton or other fibers which are exchanged among members of the tribe. As night falls, the Hopi gather in a kiva, a sacred underground prayer space, bringing their gifts of feathers to decorate the space while people dance, pray, give offerings to the gods, and play music. The celebrants also perform an elaborate dance which mimics the struggle between darkness and light, with the sun god ultimately emerging in triumph.

One of the distinctive images of Soyal is an effigy of a plumed snake, which represents the forces of darkness which try to swallow the sun. During the ceremony, people make offerings to the snake which are intended to appease it so that it does not swallow the sun god. The sun is represented by a traditional shield which is carried in the Soyal dance.

This Native American celebration has a lot in common with solstice traditions from other parts of the world; visitors from other traditional cultures would probably find a lot in common between Soyal and their own winter holidays. Like many societies, the Hopi connect the return of the sun with a triumph of good over evil, and they use the longest night of the year as a time to reflect and to purify themselves for the upcoming year.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a CulturalWorld.org researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By JessicaLynn — On Sep 22, 2011

@indemnifyme - I'm not surprised so many different cultures celebrate holidays at solstices. There definitely seems to be something significant about the longest night of the year! Because even though it is the longest night, starting the next day, the days start to grow longer again.

Ancient societies were definitely more in tune with the cycles of nature than we are today. Since most of our holidays are from very old traditions, it's not surprising some of them follow natural cycles so closely.

By indemnifyme — On Sep 21, 2011

Wow I'm really surprised at the similarities of Soyal with other winter holidays. For instance, gift giving seems to be a tradition in many winter holidays. Christmas, Hanukkah, and of course Soyal.

And no wonder! Who doesn't love getting and giving gifts? If it were my responsibility to invent a holiday my holiday would definitely involve gifts.

By ysmina — On Sep 21, 2011

Wow, reading about Soyal, reminds me a lot of the Hindu celebrations of Makar Sankranti in India. It takes place at the same time as Soyal and it's also about the days getting longer and the prayers to be in light and not darkness.

The sun is also a deity in Hinduism, just as it is with the Hopi Indians. If I remember correctly, there is a legend about how the deity killed the demon of darkness and caused the end of the winter solstice.

We also have rituals and ceremonies on this day to cleanse ourselves and we give gifts to one another. It's so nice that there are so many common themes and practices between our winter solstice celebrations and the Hopi Indians'.

By candyquilt — On Sep 20, 2011

I read about this in the local news couple of weeks ago. They were talking about how the Soyal celebrations didn't go too well this year because of some controversy about who was going to lead the ceremonies or something.

Apparently, the village chief is responsible for leading the ceremony along with his officers and they also make some administrative decisions that day about what they're going to do in the upcoming year.

I'm not sure why there was uncertainty about who would lead the ceremonies but it was nice to learn about the organizational and social structure of the Hopi Indians. For some reason, I thought that Native American ceremonies and celebrations happened with little or no planning, but clearly that's not the case.

By burcinc — On Sep 20, 2011

We learned about Soyal ceremonies in my Social Studies class. I think the longer name for the celebration is called "Soyalunwu."

What I liked the most about the ceremonies is how the different Hopi groups come together to celebrate and every year, the ceremonies take place in a different kiva, belonging to a different Hopi group.

So even though each group is sort of separate, they try and unite for Soyal and each group also gets to host the ceremonies one year, which if I understand correctly, is an honor for them.

I wish I could be a part of the Hopi winter solstice celebrations and watch the ceremonies. It sounds really interesting and fun.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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