My favorite thing about Winter Solstice is the returning of the light! It also gives me a reason to celebrate something that isn’t Christmas. In the Northern Hemisphere, it is the longest night and the shortest day, and also is the first day of winter. After the 21st, the days will begin to slowly grow longer again, until around June 21st. In the Southern Hemisphere, Summer Solstice is just around the corner.
The winter solstice has been the inspiration of many ceremonies since man first realized the significance of the event. Like most things in ancient times, people used the sun, stars, and planets to keep track of time and seasons, and they also looked to nature in order to understand more about the way the world worked. As ancient humans noticed the shortening of the days, they perhaps also harbored the fear that perhaps the sun might not return, therefore, they observed the day in various ways to entice it back.
Many people believe that our current December holidays were based on the existing solstice celebrations. It was far easier to convert people and substitute holidays for those that were used at the same time (a late December event). Since then, solstice symbols have been incorporated into our current day holidays. Use some of these traditions to celebrate, or create new traditions of your own this year!
Try greeting the sun at dawn by ringing bells on Solstice morning. Throw some seeds for the birds while you’re out there!
Decorate Your Home
Use fresh greenery, pine cones, cranberries, oranges, cloves, cinnamon, winter berries, popcorn, and other natural items to decorate. Using natural materials and taking the time to hand make your decorations is far more rewarding for yourself, loved ones, and the planet than buying store bought. I also like to incorporate vintage pieces into my decor, as a way of reusing.
Holly was the sacred plant of the Romans and their god Saturn. Holly was celebrated by the week long Roman holiday of Saturnalia (which ended on December 23). The Romans made small wreaths of holly and exchanged them as tokens of friendship. This would be a great activity for a yule party, just be careful of the pointy leaves! Evergreen boughs and trees, symbolizing the rebirth of nature and vegetation, were brought into the home; it was felt they had some special gift that they could remain green during the cold winter months. Pine needles (check for edible varieties in your area) can be dried, and then crushed and added to teas, honeys, and breads for the evening, and the season.
Have a Bonfire
Many traditions included a bonfire, an offering of light and fire, as an appeal to the sun to warm the earth once again. Some traditions lead to contemplation of the past year, and throwing something into the fire that symbolized a habit one wanted to rid themselves of. You might throw something into the fire you would like to improve on during the upcoming year. Some people like to release their intentions for the coming year, while others like to release regrets, disappointments, and failures of the current year as a symbolic way to have a clean state in the coming year. Write down what you want to release on a slip of paper and send it off with love into the fire. If you are not able to get outside (or like me, don’t want to deal with the cold), a fireplace, yule log or a candle flame is just as symbolic. Just use caution indoors ;)
Make a Yule Log
Often, the Winter Solstice is referred to as Yule. This term comes from areas of the world where Christianity had not been introduced and natives called the winter season, “Yule.” When Christianity was “introduced” and predominantly accepted in an area, many people began to call the season Christmas in honor of Christ’s birth. No matter what you call this season, “Christmas” or “Yule,” both refer to the time of the year around the Winter Solstice. A common Winter Solstice tradition is to make a yule log, which symbolizes new beginnings. A log was often selected at the beginning of the Christmas season and left to sit out as a decoration until it was time to burn it—oftentimes as a table centerpiece. The log was traditionally made of oak (for the Oak King), but ash, pine or birch were also acceptable. They were decorated with evergreen boughs, berries, or seeds, and burned during the evenings. Many people drill holes into the top of the log and place 3-4 candles (red, white, and green) in the log as well. Believing the ashes were mystical, people spread them on fields, in the hopes of encouraging magical fertilization in the spring. A small piece of the log was always saved and used to start the fire the following year.
Large gatherings were held during the burning of the yule log, where singing, dancing, and eating occurred, and no work was done while the yule log burned. It was a very special and festive time.
For those who didn’t have a place to burn a yule log, a log-shaped cake was baked, decorated, and eaten instead.
Hang Some Mistletoe
Kissing under the mistletoe is based on an old Norse legend. Frigga, the Nordic goddess of love and beauty had a son, Balder, whom she loved dearly. He was a wonderful young god and one the best loved among the other gods. One day, Balder dreamed of dying. His mother was so alarmed, she went to all the birds of the sky and to the plants and animals of the earth and easily extracted from each a promise that they would never harm Balder.
Due to these promises, it was well known that Balder could not be hurt in any way. It became great entertainment at the gatherings of the gods to throw things at Balder, knowing full well he could not be injured.
Loki the Trickster was jealous of Balder’s popularity. He pondered on the promises obtained by Frigga and found the loophole of the mistletoe. Since it did not set roots in the ground and was not of the sky, he gathered some of the parasitic mistletoe, and made a dart of its wood. At the next gathering Balder guided the hand of Hoeder (Balder’s blind brother) in a common game. But, the dart of the mistletoe wood from whom a promise had not been given, found its place, and Balder was killed.
Frigga cried so hard it is said she turned the red berries of the mistletoe to white. Finally the gods took pity on her and restored Balder to life. The elated Frigga decreed to all that whomever walked beneath the mistletoe should not fight but put down their arms and walk away and a kiss should be given to those who walk under it. Mistletoe etiquette is that for each kiss, a berry was picked. When the berries were gone, so were the kisses. If a maiden refused a kiss, she would remain unmarried for the following year.
Grains, nuts, berries or other foods of the late harvests.
Winter root vegtables
Ginger in the form of gingerbread, cookies or cakes. Other “new” spices to Europe included cinnamon and cloves (among many others) and were also used, when available.
In some Celtic cultures, shortbread was served made in round forms representing the sun.
Mulled drink or Wassail (which means “health”).
Yule log cake
Spices typically used included cinnamon, allspice, cloves, and ginger. If oranges or lemons were available (a sign of wealth) the peels were used. Some people liked the flavor of anise and a star anise could also be added. These were simply mulled or simmered in the beverage.
Solo Goddess Yule Ritual
You certainly don’t need a party or feast to celebrate! Here is a ritual meant for
Prepare: You can choose to wear something festive, decorate your altar with yule decor, light some candles, burn frankincense and myrrh, take a bath, etc.
To begin the ritual, stand at your altar, but don't light the candles just yet. Take a few moments to remember what things must have been like for our ancestors at this time of year. The harvest had been brought in, and they knew that in a few months, their stockpiles of food would be running low. It was the season of darkness, the time when the earth went dormant once more, sleeping until the spring returned. It was cold, often brutally so, and a lack of preparation could mean certain death. Those who didn't plan in advance might starve, freeze, or die of illness. The days were short, the nights were long, and it must have seemed as though spring would never return.
Despite all of this, our ancestors knew that despite the darkness of the night and the chill in the air, soon the light would return to the earth, bringing with it life. This night, the Winter Solstice, welcomes back the Sun, the ultimate giver of light.
Light the first candle, and say:
Tonight is the night of the Solstice,
the longest night of the year.
As the Wheel turns once more, I know that
tomorrow, the Sun will begin its journey back to us.
With it, new life will begin,
a blessing from Earth to her children.
Light the second candle, and say:
It is the season of the winter goddess.
Tonight I celebrate the festival of the winter solstice,
the rebirth of the Sun, and the return of light to the Earth.
As the Wheel of the Year turns once more,
I honor the eternal cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth.
Light the remaining candles on the altar at this time, and if you have decorative holiday lighting, turn it on. Return to your place at the altar, and face the holiday tree or Yule log. Raise your arms up to the tree, and say:
Today I honor the goddess of the forest,
the Mother of nature, who rules the season.
I give my thanks to the beautiful goddess,
whose blessings bring new life to the earth.
This gift I offer you tonight,
sending my prayers to you upon the air.
Light your incense, and if you'd like to make an offering of food, bread, or something else, do so now. As the smoke of the incense rises to the night sky, meditate on what changes you'd like to see before the next Sabbat. Reflect upon the time of the season. Although winter is here, life lies dormant beneath the soil. What new things will you bring to fruition for yourself when the planting season returns? How will you change yourself, and maintain your spirit throughout the cold months?