Celebrate the Winter Solstice With Your Family
by Wendy Priesnitz
The winter solstice provides a great opportunity for our families to share the principles behind our lifestyle and beliefs with others, especially with our children. Solstice celebrations can attune our family to Nature’s cycles, while strengthening bonds within our immediate families. And, if we’re not religious, it can provide us with 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. 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. Then, decide on whether you’ll be outdoors – in a park or your backyard, for instance – or inside your home.
Food is the focal point of many celebrations. 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, use beeswax candles.)
Because they symbolize light, candles are important to solstice celebrations. You can decorate outdoors by making luminaries – 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 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 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.
Yule wreaths, logs and trees 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.
Since solstice is a celebration of Nature and of light and living, your Yule tree should, ideally, be a living one. It can be growing in your yard or you can purchase one 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.)
There is a long-standing tradition of gift giving at solstice. You could have a unique and Nature-themed gift for each person present. Or you could dispense with gifts altogether and just enjoy the companionship.
It’s always good to end by holding hands in a circle focusing on the joys of friendship and family.