We are entering the darkest part of the year; the sun is sinking lower and setting earlier every day. Soon we will arrive at the Winter Solstice, also called Yule, or Mean Geimhridh in the druid tradition, which falls on Saturday, December 21st. The longest night of the year. From that point forward, the sun will begin its return as we travel slowly out of the darkness and into the light.
In just a few months the earth will begin to quicken again; silently at first, deep under the snow.
But for now, we wait in the darkness.
This is a time to reflect, to dream dreams and tell stories. To cook delicious meals and laugh around the fire, to light candles to brighten the dark corners. To watch and wait for life and warmth to return.
Winter Solstice feels like something ancient and deeply ingrained in my ancestral memory. It honors the waning sun, the sleeping earth, the breathless pause before the return of the light.
This season of scarcity reminds us that we too are wild creatures belonging to this earth, and that we like the fox and the stag and the bear need the bright sun and the green growing things to survive.
The Solstice is a vigil for the continuation of life.
Over the years, I've come to look forward to my Winter Solstice celebrations much more than to Christmas itself. (Of course, I'm speaking here strictly from the perspective of someone who traditionally celebrates Christmas, so I can't comment on any other winter holidays...)
Don't get me wrong, Christmas can be a lot of fun, and I love the sparkly lights and parties and abundance of cookies that go along with it... But the increasing emphasis on spending gobs of money in search of happiness leaves me feeling hollow, and has definitely led me to seek healthier, more meaningful ways to celebrate.
My simple, grounding Solstice rituals make me feel deeply connected to the season and to the earth herself. For me, maintaining this connection is so important in order to navigate the winter months with a healthy spirit and mindset.
So, if you're a bit burned out by all the usual Christmas stuff and want to do something totally unrelated to the capitalist frenzy, or you're just thinking about doing something a little different this year, here are a few of the things I love to do around the solstice. Of course, I really encourage everyone to run with these, or to dream up your own rituals to make you feel connected to the season.
Bring the Forest Home
Now, I realize of course that putting up greenery is also a Christmas tradition, and that many of you who celebrate that holiday probably already have wreaths on your doors and trees decorating your homes...
But what I mean by this is, if you can, actually go out into the forest and collect things from the wild.
To venture into the snowy winter woods and carefully harvest a few sprigs of greenery is a wholly different experience to purchasing pine boughs from a florist or grocery store.
One of my favorite things to do right around solstice is visit this particular grove of cedars, pines and spruces that I really love. I collect a few branches (mostly already downed) and bring them home to make into a wreath.
Outings like this are a chance to connect with the forest, to observe what the winter is like there. To see the tracks of foxes and wonder about their lives, so different from ours. To walk through the cold fresh air and let winter sink into your bones, and to breathe in the scent of pines.
Take home a spray of rosehips, a few fallen pine branches, a sheet of bark from an old birch, a handful of pinecones...whatever you feel drawn to.
Bringing these things into your home and seeing them every day is a reminder of the life that still thrives even in the winter forest and of your connection to the beautiful, sleeping earth just beyond your walls.
(Of course, when gathering from the wild, always try to be careful and conscientious about what you take. For tips on how to wildcraft, you can check out this post. And this one is specifically about conifers.)
On Solstice night, I like to turn out all the lights in my house, so that the only illumination is from a few candles.
Turn off your phone, don't switch on the tv. Just sit in the deep richness of the dark, be held in the womb of winter, indulge in the quiet of the longest night of the year. If it's a clear night, go outside for a minute and look at the stars.
You don't have to do this all night, of course. Just maybe long enough to let a feeling of peace sink in. Or for a few minutes before bed. Or however long feels good to you!
Hold a Circle
So, you can make this a really witchy thing or a totally 'normal' not witchy at all thing. The main idea is to gather with a few close friends, talk about what the year has been like for each of you, and set intentions and hopes for the coming days.
If you feel like it's something you'd be into (maybe a little witchy), consider letting everyone write down some things to let go of in the new year. Things that no longer serve, patterns to be broken. Sit in circle and take turns going over how your year was and where you are now. Then add the papers to a firesafe bowl and burn them.
Afterward, write down some things you want to call into your life; hopes, goals and dreams for the coming months. Fold up the little slips of paper and keep them. They become like little talismans, something you can dig out of your pocket or wallet or desk and look at when you feel like you're getting off track and need to re-center (which, of course, happens to us all).
And, of course, if all this stuff about paper and ritual burning isn't your thing, it's just fun to get together with friends and hash things out and talk about what you want the new year to be like. You don't even have to sit in a circle!
Cook a Winter Feast
Ok yeah, the holidays are already packed with cooking and eating giant meals. But maybe, for Solstice, think about doing something different, like a big delicious winter stew. Include root vegetables and warming herbs like rosemary, sage and thyme. Bay, chamomile, pine and juniper are a few of the herbs that are specifically associated with Winter Solstice, so those might be a nice thing to try and include. I particularly like to include pine, spruce or fir in some way - most conifers are edible and add a really fresh, interesting flavor (for some ideas, you can check out this post I wrote last winter)
If you're so inclined, bake a big hearty bread for everyone to share (or to hoard for yourself, I don't judge...). The point is a make a nice meal of hearty winter foods and, ideally, enjoy it with a few friends. (And, of course, you can combine this awesome meal with a any or all of the suggestions I mentioned above!)
However you choose to celebrate, I hope it will be peaceful, restful, and full of joy.