Winter has always been a symbol of adversity. So spending together the darkest night of the year was a way to face together the challenges of life. The bonfires have always played an important role in this festival. Bonfires were lit on the fields to get protected and blessed by the gods. The ashes of the fire got spread over the fields to make them more fruitful.
Families gathered around a wood fire. They stretch a huge blanket and spend the night telling stories. On the day of Makar Sankranti, women prepare specialties made of rice or other harvests. In many places, people donate food, clothes, and money to the poor.
Makara Sankranti coincides with the sun embarking on the transition to Capricorn. Among the Maori of New Zealand, the Pleiades are Matariki. The Australian Aborigines saw in the Pleiades a woman. There were seven sisters called the Makara.
An important symbol of the feast was, the food was often made as a doll from the last sheaves, preserved and revered. Thus the last sheaf was often left standing or tied to a human figure. The menu got supplemented with fruits and berries from the uncultivated nature. Mother Earth had a second harvest for her children, the berries.
There were also petitions, sacrifices, and thanksgiving. During this time, people also made excursions to springs, lakes, and rivers. Boys and girls could enjoy singing, dancing and playing. It is not surprising that this occasion was often the first step towards marriage.
In Sweden and Denmark, the juleber get baked in the winter from the grain of the last sheaf. In Bengal and other parts of India, the pitha get prepared likewise.
Makara Sankranti has similarities with festivals like Mabon, Lammas, Imbolc, Oimelc, and Yule. It seems that the Yule got celebrated later in the middle of January.
It also carries some similarities with Samhain and Yalda. This indicates that all the major festivities are not isolated events. The Celts, for example, lit fires to cozy up to its gods and burned a puppet representing the past. While burning the bonfire, the farmers in a circle shouted and sang. It got accompanied by a tasting of mulled wine and pliers. Flatbread typical of this feast got baked sometimes through the same fires.
Imbolc was the feast of the Celtic Goddess Brid. There were ritual cleanings, sacrifices and horse racing and nightly sacred fires. On these days the Celts celebrated the return of sunlight after the long winter. The first loaves of bread, porridge, and bread got eaten during a ritual meal. These got baked with the grain from the new harvest. The head of the family tugged the first sheaf with his hand.
The grain must then be burnt by the fire. In some circumstances, it was even burnt on a stone slab. So that the hardened grains remained, for only these got ground by the stone hand mills. After repeated sieving, bread and rolls got made from the flour. Imbolc used to start the Scottish year.
The time for the union has not yet come because Imbolc is the festival of purity and innocence. It was an old custom for the young girls to go outside the village that night, waiting for the barking of the dog. From the direction from which the dog barked, the later suitor was to appear during Beltane.
Another curious custom was to put three beans under the pillow, one without a hood, one whole and one peeled. There were neither combat games nor death rituals in the days. Bread, wine, and fish got served. Sacred games and sports competitions got held, and promises of marriage given for a year and a day.
In pre-Columbian Peru, the Incas celebrated Inti Raymi, the Sun festival. Germans had the custom of expelling the winter with a straw doll. The Boogg, which symbolized demons and spirits, was burst into flames.
Beings from the other world can come over, according to popular belief. All kinds of trolls, giants, and ghosts are on their way this night. According to Nordic faith, it was appropriate to place food for the wandering beings.
In Persian legend, the feast comes from Mithraism and celebrates the birth of Mithras, the sun god. For this, bonfires were lit in the fields, crops and trees got watered with spiced cider toast. In Iceland on Bóndadagur, on this day wives and girlfriends pamper their men.
In the Calendar of Coligny, one of the best preserved Celtic events was Deuorius Riuri. The Germans held the Modraniht, a festival celebrated with a sacrifice. The Hopi Indians of North America celebrated Soyalangwul. Maslenitsa is a traditional Russian, Ukrainian and Belarusian festival. People consume the classic sweet pancakes called bliny.
In North India in the early hours of the morning, people dip in the waters of the Yamuna or Ganga. Many people go to holy places like Haridwar and Kashi for welfare activities.
In southern India, Tamil people celebrate Pongal. Bhogi Panduga is in Andhra Pradesh and in Karnataka is the Sankranti. The festival continues for ten days with party, races, songs, and dance. Cows and oxen get decorated. Rice desserts are also prepared. At night time, cattle get carried in procession to the beat of drums and music. In Karnataka, people prepare a dish called Ellu made of sesame, coconut, and sugar.
Each town or city get decorated with colorful pictures known as muggulu. Women enjoy doing these drawings and try to outdo each other. Cockfighting gets held in Andhra, the bullfight in Tamil Nadu. Elephant party and Makaravilakku Festival take place in Sabarimala Temple in Kerala. There is the custom of illegal bets, which continue as part of the festival.
In the state of Maharashtra, the harvest of sugarcane play an important role. In each house, the women prepare Tilgul Ladoo, which are sweets made from the sugar of fresh sugarcane. It gets mixed with sesame seeds. People give them away to neighbors and friends.
In Gujarat begins the season for kite flying and everywhere get held competitions. People celebrate this festival flying small and large colorful kites. The clear blue sky looks attractive and people surrender to the joy of flying kites. The sky gets dotted with splashes of vivid colors of kites of various designs and shapes. Unmarried women pray in the hope of getting a good husband. Married pray that their husbands have a long life.
The state of West Bengal is the center of one of the largest pilgrimage festivals of Sagar Mela. On the day of Makar Sankranti, women prepare specialties made of rice or other harvests. In many places, people donate food, clothes, and money to the poor. Here thousands of believers meet to dip in the seas exactly in the astrological moment. Bengalis also celebrate the Poush Parbon. Sweet delicacies know as pitha and patishapta made of rice flour. Bhogali Bihu get celebrated in Assam and Maghe Sankranti in Bihar.
Lohri gets celebrated in Punjab and Himachal Pradesh. Families and friends gather around a bonfire. They throw rice and sweets into the flames.