Early nightfall. Crisp mornings. The sharp silhouette of leaf-bare branches. Orion marching across the evening sky. These are some familiar signs of winter. We often speak of turning inward during these darker months, becoming quiet and introspective, staying home more often, sleeping longer. Yet there’s another side to winter that contrasts with our natural inclination to rest and contemplate—a side that insists we shop til we drop, eat and drink more than we care to, and rush around busy airports. Regardless of our spiritual or cultural heritage, if we live in North America today there’s a good chance we find ourselves caught up, perhaps involuntarily or out of habit, in a commercial swirl known as “the holidays” that leaves us depleted in more ways than one.
Perhaps this year, with some preparation and planning, we can plant the seeds for a more intuitive, simpler, and natural holiday season. Winter solstice, which takes place in late December, can be a profound way to tune into the magic and beauty of the season. For people throughout the ages—from the ancient Egyptians and Celts to the Hopi—midwinter has been a significant time of ritual, reflection, and renewal. Creating a meaningful celebration of winter solstice, either in place of or in addition to other holiday activities, can help us cultivate a deeper connection to nature and family and all the things that matter most to us. Winter can become a time of feeding the spirit and nurturing the soul, not just emptying our bank account and fraying our nerves.
While we don’t know how long people have been celebrating the solstice, we know that ancient cultures built huge stone structures designed to align perfectly with the sun at specific times, such as dawn or high noon. And some ancient peoples performed sacred rituals and made offerings when the sun dipped below the horizon to ensure its daily return, especially during the darkest days.
Many of the traditions now associated with Christmas are believed to have originated centuries earlier with nature-based communities and indigenous peoples. For example, the idea of Santa Claus may have come from the story of the first shamans who were said to climb high into the upper worlds and return with gifts of wisdom and prophecies, postulates Tony Van Renterghem in When Santa Was a Shaman (Llewellyn, 1995). The word “yule” may derive from an Anglo-Saxon term that means “wheel,” and in pagan Scandinavia, village people sat around bonfires of burning yule logs throughout the night while drinking mead and listening to the stories of minstrel-poets.
Richard Heinberg, author of Celebrate the Solstice: Honoring the Earth’s Seasonal Rhythms through Festival and Ceremony (Quest Books, 1993) describes the solstices as “times of danger and opportunity; times for special alertness and aliveness.” In Iran, families often kept fires burning all night to assist the battle between the light and dark forces. In ancient Rome, where it was called Dies Natalis Invicti Solis, or the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun, masters even celebrated as equals with their slaves. Throughout history, celebrating the solstice has been a way to renew our connection with each other and with the numinous through acts of goodwill, special rituals, and heightened awareness.
Make your own rituals
“Solstice” comes from two Latin words: sol meaning "sun" and sistere meaning “to stand still” because it appeared as though the sun and moon had stopped moving across the sky. This longest night of the year, followed by a renewal of the sun, demonstrates the cyclical order of the cosmos. In this way, celebrating the solstice can be a beautiful remembrance that our lives are part of a larger order, always changing, always renewing.
In Celebrate the Solstice, Heinberg writes that “wisdom consists in knowing one’s place in any given cycle, and what kinds of action (or restraint of action) are appropriate for that phase.” Attuning our senses to the subtle changes and cycles of the seasons might help us attune more lovingly to the subtle changes and cycles in ourselves. By performing simple rituals with personal meaning to celebrate the solstice, these rituals will serve as touchstones to help us cultivate an attitude of receptiveness and appreciation that will carry us through the holiday season with more ease.
A good starting point might be to make a promise this winter to spend more time listening, watching, and honoring the slower, quieter rhythm of the season. On the solstice, visit a place outdoors that’s special to you—a trail you can walk or a field you can lie down in, a hillside or mountain perch that provides the perfect view, or even the roof of your apartment building or a quiet place on the edge of your yard. Consider watching the sun rise or set from your little patch of the world. Write a poem. Make a list of loving wishes for friends, family, coworkers—even people you don’t know that well. Build a shrine of nature’s found objects. Light a candle. Reflect on your aspirations for the coming months. Throw the I Ching. Say a prayer. Sing an original song.
Sharing food, an important part of any celebration, is particularly meaningful during the solstice, as it represents faith in the return of the sun and the harvest. Maybe you’d like to prepare a simple meal from organic winter vegetables to share with friends or family, or cook a dinner to enjoy in the welcome solitude of your own company.
Silence is another beautiful way to celebrate the shortest day of midwinter. Reflect the stillness of the day by cultivating stillness in yourself. Consider honoring the threshold of solstice with an hour of intentional silence for you and your household.
Creating a new tradition that brings more peace and heart to your holidays could also bring you closer to family and friends. Sharing a ritual founded on love of nature, on respect for the always renewing cycles of life, and on faith in the future has a way of bringing out the best in people. If you’d like to start your own, consider these suggestions found at CircleSanctuary.org. You might make a wreath with evergreens collected by loved ones on a walk through the woods. Evergreens, it’s said, symbolize the continuity of life, protection, and prosperity. Or build a circle of candlelight, one for each participant, and then blow them out and sit together in the darkness for a few moments offering gratitude before lighting one central, larger candle to symbolize your unity over the coming year. Ring a collection of bells at sunrise and sunset or offer seeds to winter birds and other outdoor creatures.
If you have children in your life, you might organize some special activities to share with them, such as identifying winter plants and animals with a field guide on a short walk or drawing pictures of winter scenes in your neighborhood. Try writing an acrostic poem in which you use “solstice” as the root word and use each of its letters as the beginning of a line in the poem. Or watch together from a warm window as the sun sets and give thanks for both the darkness and the light.