The Winter Solstice is a time of celebration in almost every culture and part of the world -- whether in the Southern or Northern Hemisphere. As a person with an Indian ancestry, I have always been amazed at the diversity of traditions in India alone. The country offers almost a continent's worth of traditions by itself. No wonder it is known as the sub-continent!
Over most of the country, the traditions are marked by the festival of Makar Sankranti. And in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu, similar festivities go under the name of Pongal. Though the broad theme of every festival is one of community bonding, harvest and a celebration of gratitude to nature's bounty, each region, and indeed each individual town or village, may have its own traditions.
But Pongal in Tamil Nadu is perhaps the most unique of the lot, in my opinion. Pongal is an annual solar calendric festival, unlike most other Indian celebrations which follow the lunar calendar. Thus, you may find Diwali falling on entirely different dates as per the Gregorian calendar, but Pongal pretty much always begins on January 14, unless it's a leap year. I say "begins" because Pongal is a three-day festival.
Before we go into that, the night before Pongal is known as Bhogi. This is a day to take stock of what you own and do a bit of spring cleaning, chucking out whatever isn't needed or isn't fit for use anymore. Most urban families aren't following this custom anymore, but in rural areas, an immense bonfire is built up and everyone in the village turns up to burn their old stuff.
The day after this is when Pongal begins in right earnest. The newly harvested rice is cooked in an earthen pot and brought to a boil under the open sun, and the traditional chant is "Pongalo Pongal," while people cheer the first meal of the harvest. Several kinds of rice preparations, including a sweet variety, are made on this day, and each is a testament to Indian culinary expertise! But there is more to the festival than just food. Giving thanks for the harvest is an important part of celebrations, as is expressing gratitude to the animals of the farm.
There's a whole day dedicated to farm animals in fact, which is the second of the three days. Known as Mattu Pongal, which literally translates to "Pongal for animals," the days sees bulls and cows garlanded and decorated, and given a good washing. Their hooves are cleansed of parasites if any, and they are generally pampered during the day. Even in this modern machine age, a large portion of the world still subsists on food created with the help of these animals, especially in Asia, and it is heartening to see these traditions still alive.
The third and final day is known as Kaanum Pongal, a day when the community gets together and bonds as a group.
All things considered, Sankranti and Pongal are among the most important community festivals in the Indian calendar, and second only to Diwali, the festival of lights in October/November. Diwali is a time to celebrate the victory of light over darkness. Similarly, Pongal is a time when the movement out of the "dark phase" of the year is celebrated, giving us a chance to pay homage to the Sun and Earth for all they have given us.