Perhaps a bit less celebrated than its counterpart, the summer solstice, the winter solstice holds a mysterious magic of its own. The frenzy of obligations we face during this holiday season can often overshadow this special turning point of the year. However, if we can carve out time to celebrate this turning point of the seasons, even the craziest holiday madness reminds us that we are always in rhythm with the earth.
What is Winter Solstice?
Most basically, the winter solstice marks the onset of winter. It is also the shortest day of the year where the night rules over the light. The day after heralds the return of the light as days finally begin to grow longer. Ancient cultures used this time to celebrate an end to the planting season, ask for protection during the remaining winter months, and welcome the light back to the earth. Festivals were thrown far and wide with dancing, feasts, and storytelling.
When is the Winter Solstice?
Winter solstice in the northern hemisphere will take place on Saturday December 21 of 2019. In the southern hemisphere, the dates are flipped. Their winter solstice will take place next June.
Winter Solstice Traditions
Our ancestral cultures recognized the importance of the winter solstice. Though each had their own rituals and celebrations, they were all united in their purpose to welcome the light back to the earth.
The Romans celebrated the winter solstice with Saturnalia. This was a festival in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture and time, an interesting and appropriate combination. Saturnalia was originally celebrated solely on the winter solstice, but the Romans loving their celebrations, expanded it to occupy a whole week. During this time, no one worked. Even the slaves ate at the same table as their masters and were treated as equals. Celebrations included gambling, singing, dancing, feasting and gift-giving. Wax taper candles called cerei were common gifts to signify the returning of the light. This Pagan holiday is where Christmas derives most of its roots.
This celebration denotes the beginning of another cycle during the Hopi people’s wheel of the year. The festival lasted even longer than the Romans’ Saturnalia, at 16 days long. The purpose was to ceremonially bring the sun back from its winter slumber. They believed that the sun god travels far from the tribe during the dark season and needs to be enticed back. A major element to these festivals were the kachina dances. Kachinas were protective mountain spirits that benefited the community for such things as the growing season ahead. Prayer sticks were also made in sacred underground ritual chambers called kivas.
St. Lucia’s Day
Another festival to celebrate the light was St. Lucia’s Day, as practiced by the Scandinavians. Though it was later named to honor the Christian martyr, St. Lucia, its roots go deeper. Originating from Norse traditions, huge bonfires fires were kept lit all night long to ward off spirits during the longest night of the year. Leftover food from the feasts were left out all night to feed the mischievous elves of the forest, or nisse. If they were not fed, ill fortune would fall upon the family. Now thousands of candles are lit to illuminate the darkness. Girls carry baskets of ginger cookies and saffron bread to pass out. It is a night where Pagan and Christian traditions meld and it becomes difficult to see where one ends and the other begins. For St. Lucia was a Sicilian woman who wore a crown of candles to lead persecuted Christians hiding in tunnels. Here we can see the leading light in the dark symbols co-mingle.
Winter Solstice Celebrations
No matter how our ancestors celebrated the season, we can craft our own rituals to make a meaningful solstice.
Winter Bitters & Mocktails
As most of us can agree, the time surrounding the winter solstice can be quite heavy in the food department. Constant offerings and gifts of cookies, mashed potatoes, and eggnog can leave us feeling sluggish and not very festive. An idea to celebrate the winter solstice in a healthier way, is to practice a bitters ritual. Bitters help to keep our digestive system in tip-top shape even when we succumb to one iced yule tree cookie (or three…or more). We can incorporate bitters daily into our lives during this dark season by adding a dash to sparkling water with a squeeze of lemon. To dress them up for solstice try a mocktail recipe!
- 2 oz chai tea
- 1 oz elderberry syrup
- 1/2 oz pomegranate juice
- dash of Bitters
- 1 oz aquafaba (an amazing egg white substitute made from chickpea liquid!)
- herbs for garnish
- Add all ingredients besides the garnish to a shaker and shake for 30 seconds.
- Add ice to the shaker and shake for another 30 seconds.
- Pour into glass and garnish.
Make a Birch Broom
Birch is a tree traditionally used as the Yule log in Scandinavia and holds much significance in ancestral lore. Often called the lady of the woods, this feminine plant spirit represents new beginnings, hope, regeneration and new dawns. This makes it perfect for a winter solstice celebration to welcome back the light. A simple broom has also been used for centuries not just functionally, but symbolically to sweep away old negative energies and make room for the new. Crafting a birch broom is a beautiful project to make and use during the solstice to honor the season and connect to our ancestors. There are many great tutorials online to show you how to make brooms, simply replace the handle and straw with birch wood and twigs.
Decorate with the Forest
Bringing greenery into the home is already a tradition with the Yule tree, representing eternal life. Another great way to take this a step further is to craft your own garlands, hangings, and ornaments from the gifts of the forest. Not only is this a great craft to involve family and friends, but it is also much more environmentally friendly than buying plastic decor. If you haven’t discovered your local compost dump yet, this is a great place to start looking for material assuming it is open to the public. Forage clippings from juniper, pine, spruce, etc. Pine cones, native holly, twigs, and other greenery can be found along trail sides to adorn the garlands. Simply find a rope and cut it to the length of your desired garland, attach the foraged boughs with wire, and decorate with the other bits and pieces you found.
Check out more bitters from The Alchemist’s Kitchen here!