celebrations can attune our family to Nature’s cycles, and teach children
some basic science. The winter solstice is traditionally a time for
reflection and celebrating the return of longer days. In the northern
hemisphere, it can also be the beginning of a Christmas celebration. Or if you're
not religious, it can provide an alternative celebration to share with
extended family and friends who are.
Many of the religious holy days celebrated by people around the world are linked
in some way to the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere and have ancient
roots in pagan celebrations. The term solstice means “sun stands still” and,
indeed, this is a time when the sun appears to halt in its apparent journey
across the sky. Since winter is the season of darkness and bad weather in cold
climates, the coming of longer and brighter days after the winter solstice
brought on a more festive mood.
The Roman feast of Saturnalia, honoring the god Saturn, was a
week-long feast that included the observance of the winter solstice. Parties
took place and houses were decorated with boughs of laurel and evergreen trees,
and lamps remained lit to ward off the spirits of darkness. Much visiting took
place, along with gift giving, and processions of revelers took to the streets.
Pagan Scandinavia celebrated a winter festival called Yule or jul. Many of our
Christmas traditions were inherited from these celebrations and you can
incorporate them into your own solstice celebrations...along with creating your
own personal traditions.
Planning your Celebration
First of all, decide whether your solstice celebration will be focused on the
exact time of the solstice, or at twilight, later in the evening or during the
day. That, and other details, will, of course, depend upon the ages of the
attendees, the day of the week on which the solstice falls, and whether or not
attendees work during the day. Then, decide on whether you’ll be outdoors – in a park or your
backyard, for instance – or inside your home.
Sharing food is the focal point of many celebrations, solstice included. You might want to prepare a
feast of favorite foods (or have a pot luck), topped off with a cake decorated
with a sun. One family we know puts candles on the cake and each family member
lights one while making a wish. Then the whole family blows them out together.
(For good indoor air quality, I encourage you to use beeswax candles.)
they symbolize light, candles are important to solstice celebrations. You can
decorate outdoors by making luminaries (luminaria) – or candle holders – and spacing them
about a foot apart…along the sidewalk to your home, for instance. Place candles
inside dollar store glass holders or canning jars, punch decorative patterns in
tin cans, or use flat-bottomed paper bags. If you use paper bags, fold over an inch or
so of the top to help hold their shape and place a few cups of sand inside to
weigh them down. Twist a votive candle into the sand in the middle of each bag
and light the candles as dusk falls. (Don’t use these luminaries indoors!)
Create your own family tradition by gathering in a circle around candles.
Each person can light a candle and talk about something they’re grateful for or
something they wish for another person in the coming year. Or you could tell or
read legends about the winter solstice, or sing appropriate songs. (You might
want to record this part of your party for future enjoyment.) You would, of
course, adjust the ceremony based on the ages of any children involved.
Feeding our friends in Nature can be a part of a solstice celebration too.
You can erect a bird feeder or fill an existing one, or venture into a
neighboring forest and create a ceremony around placing seeds or nuts in a place
where wild animals will find them. You might want to talk about how this
connects us to and makes us grateful for our place in Nature.
Evergreen trees are a traditional part of Christmas celebrations, and you
can include one in your solstice plans too.
Since solstice is a celebration of Nature and of light and living, your Yule
tree should, ideally, be a living one. You might want to adopt a tree
– on your property, in a park, or a forest – and
decorate it with food for birds and small animals; start a family tradition
and visit it every year, keeping a photographic record of how it and your
family is changing.
You can also
purchase a tree in a pot to plant in the ground later. Each family member should
add an ornament that is meaningful to them and many families enjoy limiting the
decorations to representations of the sun in honor of the solstice. (Moons and
stars are other suitable decorations.)
Yule wreaths and logs are other familiar aspects of solstice
celebrations. Wreaths can represent both the family circle and the cycle of
seasons. Making one from natural materials that you collect can be a meaningful
and enjoyable family activity. While you work, you can discuss the meaning of
the various customs, or each family member can share something they appreciate
about each other or about winter.
If you have a fireplace or a space outdoors to light a bonfire, you can
gather around it in the dark and tell stories. One ancient tradition has each
family member throwing a holly sprig onto the fire to usher out the old year,
then saving some of the charred wood to start next year’s Yule log burning.
There is a long-standing tradition of gift giving at solstice. (Is it
beginning to sound a lot like Christmas?) You could have
a unique and Nature-themed gift for each person at your celebration. Or you could dispense
with gifts altogether and just enjoy the companionship.
It’s always good to end your solstice celebration by holding hands in a circle focusing on the joys of
friendship and family.
Wendy Priesnitz is Natural Life's Editor.
She has over 35 years of experience as a writer/editor and a lifetime of
experience searching for alternatives to conventional Christmas celebrations.