Festive ways to mark the beginning of winter and the return of the light.
For 10-year-old Sara, the Winter Solstice conjures up magical memories of paper lanterns, backyard bonfires, special foods and drink, and small presents.
But her best moment came last year when her family decorated a tree in their yard with garlands of popcorn and cranberries. The next day a small flock of chickadees found the offering and made a great show of hopping from branch to branch, singing as they feasted.
“Look, Mommy!” she cried. “We’re feeding the birds for winter. They got their Solstice present too!”
Celebrated throughout history by festivals, rituals, and feasts, the Winter Solstice (on December 21st) is the shortest day of the year, signaling the beginning of winter and the return of the light. Early people believed that welcoming the light would help them survive the deprivations of winter (see sidebar).
Today, many families continue to mark this special day with their own festive events. Their reasons for doing so vary. Some want to better connect with nature, the seasons, family and friends. Others want to get away from the commercialism that’s associated with this time of year. Sarah’s parents Karen and Justin want to do both.
“It is pretty moving to have your child understand that the winter seasonal holiday doesn’t just have to be about store-bought gifts or about her,” says Karen. “And that it can really be about sharing with family, friends, and even nature and the environment that surrounds us.”
Return of the sun
Symbols of the returning light are as important to today’s Solstice festivities as they were in the past, says Esther, a mom of four. Although we don’t face the same perils as our ancestors did, we too welcome the longer days and the shorter nights.
“The lack of sunlight, the cold days, and the fewer hours spent outside all take their toll,” says Esther. “They sap energy. Many people are diagnosed with SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder), so it’s a time when celebration is important.”
Esther and her husband hold a small get together every year at which unique handmade lanterns are a fixture. “Perhaps the coolest ones we do are balloon ice lanterns,”she says. “Kids absolutely love them. And they love to make them.”(See sidebar for instructions.)
Tin can lanterns are another favourite. Her kids get really creative designing leaf or snowflake shaped holes in the cans. “The results are often astonishing in the dark.” These look particularly lovely along railings or walkways.
Marianne, a single mom, traditionally makes paper lanterns, which emit a soft, warm glow. “When you have a group of people decorating a tree by lantern-light, the effect is magical,” she says. “It pushes away the gloom and offers a festive air. You get this cool feeling that it could be anytime: 2013… 1813… 1613…”
Even more dramatic is a bonfire, according to Karen.”A good ripping fire can be the focal point for your party. Lawn chairs, hot beverages, and snacks are all a must. And you’ll definitely stay warm. Nothing pushes off the cold winter night like a bonfire. The kids love it!”
The nature element
Marianne sees the Solstice as a time for blurring the lines between indoor and outdoor. “During the winter, you’re driven indoors by the weather and lack of light. You can help eliminate this barrier by bringing the outdoors in, and the indoors out.”
This could mean decorating your yard with lanterns and tree trimmings, and your house with wreaths of pine boughs, cones, holly and mistletoe. The garlands that Karen makes are “a way to bring colour and decoration to the outdoor winter world,” she says.
Themes of nature and the environment are also common. The focus is on plants and animals that have to face the harsh winter conditions.
Sara’s chickadees get sustenance from the garland. Other families hang bird feeders, including homemade suet or peanut butter balls or peanut feeders that attract winter jays and cardinals. “You are providing food for birds and small mammals that are trying to survive on very few resources,” notes Karen.
Ways to celebrate
There is no formula for celebration. It can be family only, with time for quiet and reflection. For instance, a walk or hike at sunrise. Or it can be a small or large gathering, which is held at sunset when it’s easier to bring people together.
Indoors, you can light candles or build a fire in your fireplace or woodstove. Warm food and drink are essential for a cozy atmosphere. For a small group, you can supply tea or coffee for the adults, herbal teas or hot chocolate for the kids, as well as ginger or sugar cookies made by the kids.
“If we have time to organize a party, we tend to go big,” says Karen. “We do a potluck so there is a great variety of foods and less work for the hosts. Since the Solstice is marked by cultures around the world, we often choose an international theme.”
At some gatherings, guests will stand or sit in a circle to represent the never-ending cycle of nature and the seasons. They talk about what they are thankful for, sing seasonal songs, or even tell funny stories or riddles. In ancient times, riddles were used to while away the long nights.
Simple gifts may be exchanged as well. “Our gifts range from the serious to the silly,” says Marianne.”My daughter Gabby’s grandmother knits mittens or hats. My brother-in-law has a sweet tooth and loves cereal, so one year Gabby and I made him a hat from Honeycombs and a necklace of wine gums.”
“Other people take their gifts very seriously,” she adds. “But everyone I know stays away from anything overly commercial.”
Why not start your own Solstice tradition this year, and find ways to banish the cold, dark winter nights just as the ancients did.
A Short History of the Solstice
The Winter Solstice is older than history itself. Anthropologists believe that Neolithic humans were very familiar with the solar changes associated with the Solstice in their daytime skies. The sun would sink lower on the horizon than on any other day, and even seem to stand still as the seasonal movement of its path stopped before reversing direction. These early people recognized that it was the shortest day of the year, and that the days would only grow longer as winter progressed.
Massive pre-historic structures, such as Britain’s Stonehenge, were built to observe the unique course of the sun on this special day. The incredible feats of engineering and human effort attest to its importance.
The name Solstice comes from this heavenly observance. It is derived from the Latin sol (sun) and sistere (to stand still).
The major concern for these early people was making it through the winter. Starvation was a reality. By celebrating the return of the light, they hoped to stave off the impact of winter cold and darkness. Because it was a time for killing animals for food for the long winter, feasts often included fresh meats and game.
Later festivities took on different forms in various cultures. In ancient Rome, it became Saturnalia – a week-long feast with late-night parties and gift-giving. In Northern Europe, the Norse and Celtic revelries incorporated many of the traditions and symbols that we now associate with the holiday season, such as holly, mistletoe, decorated trees, and Yule logs.
The Chinese introduced their own holiday, Dongzhi, which featured visits to temples and sharing special foods – in particular, dumplings. It is even thought that Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights, and the candles of the Menorah were inspired by Greek Solstice celebrations that dispelled the darkness through fire.