Winter Solstice Traditions: Rituals for a Simple Celebration

This year, let your winter solstice celebration be an occasion to look deeply at small things, to feel at home in the world and to be just where you belong.


| November/December 2004



lit candles

At day's end on the winter solstice, the sun glows like a flame atop this stone circle.


Photo By Susan Wasinger

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.

Pre-Christmas celebrations 

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.





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