12/24/2014 09:49 am ET Updated Feb 22, 2015

The Significance of Makar Sankranti

With Christmas just around the corner, I thought I'd write something about another holiday which happens around the winter solstice. Known as Makar Sankranti, this Indian festival honoring the sun is one of the most popular in the sub-continent. An event known by different names depending on the region, it is celebrated throughout India and Nepal.

As it is associated with the sun, it is one of the few Indian festivals which falls on the same day every year in the Western Calendar - January 14th (or 15th if it's a leap year). Makar Sankranti takes its name from the movement of the Sun into Makara or Capricorn and is celebrated as the start of the harvest season and the end of the northeast monsoon in South India.

Sankranti in essence means movement and there are 12 Sankrantis in the year, which designate the sun's position moving from one astrological sign to another. The movement of the zodiac indicates a change in the planet, which is especially noticeable after the winter solstice - one more reason why the Makar Sankranti is a significant time

I've always had fond memories of this festival as it is celebrated with special sweets and food. Generally it is seen as an important event and an opportunity to honor the sun for everything he has given us. The fête has been celebrated since ancient times, and Makar Sankranti is mentioned in the Mahabharat, the ancient Indian epic.

My favorite part is bhogi, which is also the first day of the festival. This is the day when you are supposed to take full stock of everything in the house (a little like spring cleaning) and then throw out anything excess or anything you won't use in the next year. Actually, all the unwanted items are supposed to be given away or burnt according to tradition, though most urban families generally tend to avoid this prescription.

But fire or no, I enjoy the freedom it gives me when I throw away all the old junk I don't need (and believe me, in a year I gather a lot of junk). It's also nice to have a benchmark for myself to decide what to throw away and what to keep. I generally end up with a "throw away pile," a "keep it" pile and a "maybe will use in one year" pile, which undergoes a lot of back and forth before I may my final call. I've noticed though that it's easier for me to throw away things when I ask myself, "Will I really use this in the next one year or not?" This basically gives me a way to make a clear-cut decision, otherwise I end up getting attached to a whole bunch of stuff thinking that it may be useful somewhere.

There is also a very "real" quality to the festival, which lasts 3 or 4 days depending on the tradition. One thing is giving thanks for the harvest, which has come to us from Mother Earth. So apart from the good food and celebration, it is also a way to honor the Earth for the life-giving sustenance she provides us. The last day of the festival is dedicated to the farm animals, which takes on a special significance in the southern state of Tamil Nadu with "Maattu Pongal" - a celebration revolving around the livestock, specifically the cows. Maybe in today's world of mechanized production, farm animals seem an unlikely choice for a holiday. But if you think about it, for a large part of human history, agriculture wouldn't have been possible without their help. And even today, there is still a substantial part of the world's population that use traditional farming methods. So there is a certain sense of indebtedness to the farm animals, which is an integral part of the festival.

In Tamil Nadu, Pongal is celebrated by honoring the livestock and cooking the freshly harvested rice under the open sun as an expression of thanks. One can hear the shouts of "Pongalo Pongal!" all around, as people cheer the first meal of the harvest when the rice pots boil over. The cooking is done in earthen pots, where they make two varieties of rice dishes, which are cooked with sizable amounts of clarified butter or ghee. Besides just cooking good food (the sweet variety is especially tasty!), the celebration is about being together, enjoying nature and giving thanks for the harvest.

All-in-all, Makar Sankranti is about living in gratitude and enjoying the bounty that nature has given us, which makes it all the more relevant in today's world where we are largely cut off from our natural surroundings. So this January 14th, whatever may be your cultural background, take some time out to honor the "big players" in our life - the Earth and the Sun - for all they have given us, and eat some good food, if you get the chance!