I finally understood the symbolic significance of this first Hindu festival of the (modern) New Year, courtesy this site (excerpts):
Introduction of Makar Sankranti:
Makar Sankranti is one of the most auspicious day for the Hindus, and is celebrated in almost all parts of the country in myriad cultural forms, with great devotion, fervor & gaiety. Lakhs of people take a dip in places like Ganga Sagar & Prayag and pray to Lord Sun.
It is celebrated with pomp in southern parts of the country as Pongal, and in Punjab is celebrated as Lohri & Maghi. Gujarati’s not only look reverentially up to the sun, but also offer thousands of their colorful oblations in the form of beautiful kites all over the skyline…It is a day for which Bhishma Pitamah kept waiting to leave his mortal coil.
Makar Sankranti is the day when the glorious Sun-God of Hindus begins its ascendancy and entry into the Northern Hemisphere. Sun for the Hindus stands for Pratyaksha-Brahman – the manifest God, who symbolizes, the one, non-dual, self-effulgent, glorious divinity blessing one & all tirelessly.
Sun is the one who transcends time and also the one who rotates the proverbial Wheel of Time. The famous Gayatri Mantra, which is chanted everyday by every faithful Hindu, is directed to Sun God to bless them with intelligence & wisdom. Sun not only represents God but also stands for an embodiment of knowledge & wisdom. …
Of all the cosmic bodies Sun is the most glorious & important, thus every sun-centric cosmic event became very important spiritual, religious & cultural events. On Makar Sankranti day the Sun begins its ascendancy and journey into the Northern Hemisphere…
For the religious and astrological significance of “Makar Sankranti”, read on:
Makar means Capricorn and Sankranti is transition. There is a sankranti every month when the sun passes from one sign of the zodiac to the next. There are twelve signs of the zodiac, and thus there are twelve sankranti’s as well. Each of these sankranti’s has its own relative importance but two of these are more important – the Mesh (Aries) Sankranti and the most important, the Makar (Capricorn) Sankranti.
Transition of the Sun from Sagittarius to Capricorn, during the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere is known as Makar Sankranti. From this day begins the six-month long Uttarayana, considered very auspicious for attaining higher worlds hereafter.
While the traditional Indian Calendar is basically based on lunar positions, but sankranti is a solar event, so while dates of all festivals keep changing, the english calendar date of Makar Sankranti is always same, 14th January. Makar Sankranti is celebrated in the Hindu Calendar month of Magha. There is another significance of this day, after this day the days start becoming longer & warmer, and thus the chill of winter in on decline.
1. The Puranas say that on this day Sun visits the house of his son Shani, who is the swami of Makar Rashi. These father & son do not ordinarily get along nicely, but inspite of any difference between each other Lord Sun makes it a point to meet each other on this day. Father in fact himself comes to his son’s house, for a month. This day symbolized the importance of special relationship of father & son. It is the son who has the responsibility to carry forward his fathers dream and the continuity of the family.
2. From Uttarayana starts the “day” of Devatas, while dakshinayana is said to be the “night” of devatas, so most of the auspicious things are done during this time. Uttarayana is also called as Devayana, and the next half is called Pitrayana.
3.It was on this day when Lord Vishnu ended the ever increasing terrorism of the Asuras by finishing them off and burying their heads under the Mandar Parvat. So this occasion also represents the end of negativities and beginning of an era of righteous living.
4. The great savior of his ancestors, Maharaj Bhagirath, did great Tapasya to bring Gangaji down on the earth for the redemption of 60,000 sons of Maharaj Sagar, who were burnt to ashes at the Kapil Muni Ashram, near the present day Ganga Sagar. It was on this day that Bhagirath finally did tarpan with the Ganges water for his unfortunate ancestors and thereby liberated them from the curse. After visiting the Patala for the redemption of the curse of Bhagirath’s ancestors Gangaji finally merged in the Sagar. Even today a very big Ganga Sagar Mela is organized every year on this day at the confluence of River Ganges and the Bay of Bengal. Lakhs take dip in the water and do tarpan for their ancestors.
We salute such a great devotee & benefactor of his ancestors. One who can express such gratitude to his ancestors, work with tireless resolve to redeem the pride, pledges & resolves of his forefathers, alone possess a personality, which the history reveals to be a true benefactor of the world too. A person who has severed his own roots gets soon rooted out in the flow of time. Moral of the story is to see to it that the roots of the tree of “our” life are not only intact but nourished well, thereafter alone the tree blooms & flourishes.
There is another spiritually symbolic aspect of this story. The 60,000 cursed son of Maharaj Sagar represent our thoughts, who become dull & dead-like because of uncultured & blind ambition. Redemption of such people is only by the waters of Gangaji, brought down “to” & later “from” the Himalayas with great tapasya. This represents dedicated hard work to get the redeeming Brahma-Vidya, which alone enlightens, enthuses & enlivens the life of anyone.
5. Another well-known reference of this day came when the great grandsire of Mahabharata fame, Bhishma, declared his intent to leave his mortal coil on this day. He had the boon of Ichha-Mrityu from his father, so he kept lying on the bed of arrows till this day and then left his mortal coil on Makar Sankranti day. It is believed that the person, who dies during the period of Uttarayana, becomes free from transmigration. So this day was seen as a sure-shot Good Luck day to start your journey or endeavors to the higher realms beyond.
Culture & Festivities:
This festival is celebrated differently in different parts of the country.
In Uttar Pradesh, Sankrant is called “Khichiri”. Taking a dip in the holy rivers on this day is regarded as most auspicious. A big one-month long “Magha-Mela” fair begins at Prayag (Allahabad) on this occasion. Apart from Triveni, ritual bathing also takes place at many places like Haridvar and Garh Mukteshwar in Uttar Pradesh, and Patna in Bihar.
In Bengal every year a very big Mela is held at Ganga Sagar where the river Ganga is believed to have dived into the nether region and vivified the ashes of the sixty thousand ancestors of King Bhagirath. This mela is attended by a large number of pilgrims from all over the country.
In Tamil Nadu Sankrant is known by the name of “Pongal”, which takes its name from the surging of rice boiled in a pot of milk, and this festival has more significance than even Diwali. It is very popular particularly amongst farmers. Rice and pulses cooked together in ghee and milk is offered to the family deity after the ritual worship. In essence in the South this Sankrant is a “Puja” (worship) for the Sun God.
In Andhra Pradesh, it is celebrated as a three-day harvest festival Pongal. It is a big event for the people of Andhra Pradesh. The Telugus like to call it ‘Pedda Panduga’ meaning big festival. The whole event lasts for four days, the first day Bhogi, the second day Sankranti, the third day Kanuma and the fourth day, Mukkanuma.
In Karnataka, the festival is marked by visiting one’s friends and relatives to exchange greetings, and by the preparation of a dish called Ellu (made with sesame seeds, coconuts, sugar blocks, etc). A common custom found across Karnataka is the exchange of sugarcane pieces and Ellu with one’s neighbors, friends and relatives. In Karnataka, Pongal is known as ‘Sankranti’, and cows and bullocks are gaily decorated and fed ‘Pongal’- a sweet preparation of rice. Special prayers are offered. In the evening, the cattle are led out in procession to the beat of drums and music. In the night a bonfire is lit and the animals are made to jump over the fire.
Makar Sankranti is marked by men, women and children wearing colorful clothing; visiting near and dear ones; and exchanging pieces of sugarcane, a mixture of fried til, molasses, pieces of dry coconut, peanuts and fried gram. On this auspicious day, people in Karnataka distribute Yellu and bella (Sesame seeds and Jaggery) and greet with the words “Ellu bella thindu, Olle Maathu Aadu (Eat sesame seeds and speak only good). The significance of this exchange is that sweetness should prevail in all the dealings.
In Maharashtra on the Sankranti day people exchange multi-colored tilguds made from til (sesame seeds) and sugar and til-laddus made from til and jaggery. Til-polis are offered for lunch. While exchanging tilguls as tokens of goodwill people greet each other saying: “til-gul ghya, god god bola” meaning “accept these tilguls and speak sweet words”. The under-lying thought in the exchange of tilguls is to forget the past ill-feelings and hostilities and resolve to speak sweetly and remain friends.
This is a special day for the women in Maharashtra when married women are invited for a get-together called �Haldi-Kumkum� and given gifts of any utensil, which the woman of the house purchases on that day.
In Gujarat Sankrant is observed more or less in the same manner as in Maharashtra but with a difference that in Gujarat there is a custom of giving gifts to relatives. The elders in the family give gifts to the younger members of the family. The Gujarati Pundits on this auspicious day grant scholarships to students for higher studies in astrology and philosophy. This festival thus helps the maintenance of social relationships within the family, caste and community.
Kite flying has been associated with this festival in a big way. It has become an internationally well-known event.
In Punjab where December and January are the coldest months of the year, huge bonfires are lit on the eve of Sankrant and which is celebrated as “LOHARI”. Sweets, sugarcane and rice are thrown in the bonfires, around which friends and relatives gather together. The following day, which is Sankrant, is celebrated as MAGHI. The Punjabi’s dance their famous Bhangra dance till they get exhausted. Then they sit down and eat the sumptuous food that is specially prepared for the occasion.
The 40 days anushthana by the devotees of Ayyappa ends on this day in Sabarimala with a big festival.
In Bundelkhand and Madhya Pradesh this festival of Sankrant is known by the name “Sakarat” and is celebrated with great pomp & merriment accompanied by lot of sweets.
Tribals of Orissa:
Many tribals in our country start their New Year from the day of Sankrant by lighting bonfires, dancing and eating their particular dishes sitting together. The Bhuya tribals of Orissa have their Maghyatra in which small home-made articles are put for sale.
In Assam, the festival is celebrated as Bhogali Bihu.
In the coastal regions, it is a harvest festival dedicated to Indra.
How to Celebrate:
1. Get up early in the morning, before sunrise, have bath and be ready with water & flowers for the sunrise. Worship the rising Sun, by offering water, flowers with both the hands & then pray with folded hands by chanting the Gayatri Mantra and pray for knowledge, wisdom and enlightenment to rise in the similar way to greater & greater heights. Pray for blessings to live a dynamic, inspired & righteous life.
2. Do tarpan for your ancestors. Offer water to the ancestors while praying for their blessings. Resolve to redeem the pledges & pride of your forefathers. Live life in such a way that wherever your forefathers may be their head is held high by the life & deeds of their children.
3. Have a special session of Meditation, wherein you bring about the awareness of the self-effulgent subjective divinity. Affirm the greatest importance of your spiritual goal very clearly, and pray to God to bless you with the capacity to constantly revel in your true self. May the graph of your rise like the Uttarayana Sun. May there be greater ‘Love & Light’ in your life & the world.
4. Prepare laddus or other sweets of Til & Gur and offer them to your friends & relatives. See to it that your “Well-being Prayer for all” gets manifested in action & deeds.
5. Have the lunch of Khichiri. This stands for inculcating simplicity in your life & habits.
6. Give some Daan on this day to someone who truly deserves.
7. Visit your son at his place and give presents to the son and the daughter-in-law. If it is not possible to visit, then organize to send presents to them to express your love & affection to them. Work to properly cultivate the generation, which has to carry forward all the best you cherish & value*.
Copyright � 2000 Indian Cultural Foundation, Mumbai
* I would modify this to suggest, visit your children (not only your son).