Most scholars believe the date of our modern Christmas holiday was likely based upon its proximity to the ancient solstice celebrations humans have held for thousands of years. In ancient cultures, these transitional times of year were so important they were honored with everything from weeklong parties to giant monuments designed to align with the sun at specific times on specific dates. Among the most important of these occasions was the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, when celebrations focused on the continuity of the cycles of nature, the return of new life, and a connection with the phases of the sun and moon.
Today it often feels as if the winter holiday has been tugged away from its early connection with nature and toward consumerism and perfection. Many of us feel pressured to meet sky-high expectations at this time of year — a magical experience for children; an Instagram-perfect dinner party for friends; a family feast where Grandma Rose’s apple pie tastes exactly as it did when you were a child and a 20-pound turkey is lovingly tended for 12 hours. It can all add up to a season in which we feel more frazzled than peaceful.
To re-center the season on nature and simplicity, I love to explore activities tied to the outdoors that bring me together with loved ones in a serene setting. Some of these ideas are inspired by ancient solstice celebrations, and others are simply a good way to spend time with friends and family out in the fresh air. For example, one fun and festive tradition is to decorate an outdoor evergreen tree, but rather than hanging ornaments and beads, hang decorations that feed wildlife: suet balls; pinecones with peanut butter; strung orange slices, dried berries or grapes; even bird “cookie” ornaments made of peanut butter, uncooked oats, seeds and cornmeal. Collecting and making your decorations, then decorating the tree, offers hours of entertainment for kids and adults alike.
Fires are often associated with the solstice. Consider hosting a bonfire night, telling stories, singing songs or simply observing silence. Or use candles to light the evening or as a symbol of unity in a simple ceremony. For example, sit in a circle and give everyone a candle. Have everyone light their own candle, then by candlelight make a list of loving wishes for friends, family and colleagues in the coming year. Afterward, everyone can blow out their candle and light one center candle to symbolize unity and peacefulness in their own lives and across the globe.
Of course, food is a fundamental component of nearly all celebrations, and its ties to the fall and winter holidays — when people traditionally gave thanks for a successful harvest — are especially deep. Special recipes connect us to loved ones and traditions of the past, while focusing on the plants and animals themselves honors our connection with the Earth. Making beloved dishes is a great way to spend time with others, too. But aim for a simple night of baking the family’s passed-down cookie recipe while reflecting on ties to our heritage and each other — not a hectic night staying up until 2 a.m. baking 12 dozen cookies for the holiday bake sale (unless that brings you joy).
Regardless of your beliefs, I hope this year you’ll consider incorporating our connection with nature into your holiday festivities — after all, to celebrate the Earth is to celebrate our connections with each other and with whatever divine creator you choose to believe in.