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.