Winter Solstice Traditions

  • Which is the longest night of the year?
    The shortest day of the year, the longest night occurs today, Sunday, December 21st. The so-called Winter solstice is an astronomical phenomenon that occurs in the North Hemisphere when the Earth North axis is at the longest distance to the sun.

    winter solstice2

    Is today the shortest day of the year?
    December Solstice: Shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. The December solstice is on either December 20, 21, 22 or 23. It is called Winter Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, where it is the shortest day of the year. In the Southern Hemisphere, it is the Summer Solstice and the longest day of the year.
  • Why is it the shortest day today?
    Winter solstice is an astronomical phenomenon marking the shortest day and the longest night of the year. In the Northern Hemisphere this is the December solstice and in the Southern Hemisphere this is the June solstice.
  • How long does Yule last?
    In Germanic Neopagan sects, Yule is celebrated with gatherings that often involve a meal and gift giving. Groups such as the Asatru Folk Assembly in the US recognise the celebration as lasting 12 days, beginning on the date of the winter solstice.
  • Celebrate Yule with a series of rituals, feasts, and other activities. In most ancient cultures, the celebration lasted more than a day. The ancient Roman Saturnalia festival sometimes went on for a week. Have Winter Solstice Eve and Day be the central focus for your household, and conceptualize other holiday festivities, including New Year’s office parties and Christmas visits with Christian relatives, as part of your Solstice celebration. By adopting this perspective, Pagan parents can help their children develop an understanding of the multicultural and interfaith aspects of this holiday time and view “Christmas” as just another form of Solstice. Have gift exchanges and feasts over the course of several days and nights as was done of old. Party hearty on New Year’s Eve not just to welcome in the new calendar year, but also to welcome the new solar year.
  • Honor the Goddess as Great Mother. Place Pagan Mother Goddess images around your home. You may also want to include one with a Sun child, such as Isis with Horus. Pagan Goddess forms traditionally linked with this time of year include Tonantzin (Native Mexican corn mother), Holda (Teutonic earth goddess of good fortune), Bona Dea (Roman women’s goddess of abundance and prophecy), Ops (Roman goddess of plenty), Au Set/Isis (Egyptian/multicultural All Goddess whose worship continued in Christian times under the name Mary), Lucina/St. Lucy (Roman/Swedish goddess/saint of light), and Befana (Italian Witch who gives gifts to children at this season).
  • Honor the new solar year with light. Do a Solstice Eve ritual in which you meditate in darkness and then welcome the birth of the sun by lighting candles and singing chants and Pagan carols. If you have a indoor fireplace or an outdoor fire circle, burn an oak log as a Yule log and save a bit to start next year’s fire. Decorate the inside and/or outside of your home with electric colored lights. Because of the popularity of five pointed stars as holiday symbols, this is a good time to display a pentagram of blue or white lights.
  • Contribute to the manifestation of more wellness on Planet Earth. Donate food and clothing to poor in your area. Volunteer time at a social service agency. Put up bird feeders and keep them filled throughout the winter to supplement the diets of wild birds. Donate funds and items to non-profit groups, such as Pagan/Wiccan churches and environmental organizations. Meditate for world peace. Work magic for a healthier planet.
  • Make a pledge to do some form of good works in the new solar year.dorn the home with sacred herbs and colors. Decorate your home in Druidic holiday colors red, green, and white. Place holly, ivy, evergreen boughs, and pine cones around your home, especially in areas where socializing takes place. Hang a sprig of mistletoe above a major threshold and leave it there until next Yule as a charm for good luck throughout the year.
  • Have family/household members join together to make or purchase an evergreen wreath. Include holiday herbs in it and then place it on your front door to symbolize the continuity of life and the wheel of the year. If you choose to have a living or a harvested evergreen tree as part of your holiday decorations, call it a Solstice tree and decorate it with Pagan symbols.

Timing of Celebration: pick a time that fits form of celebration and family patterns, such as:

On Solstice:

  • at moment of Solstice (check astrological/astronomical calendar)
  • at twilight
  • in evening before going to sleep
  • at sunrise
  • at noon or midday

Near Solstice:

  • night before Solstice
  • weekend before Solstice

Length of Celebration:structure with age and attention range of family members in mind

  • Very Short: under five minutes
  • Short: five to twenty minutes
  • Medium: twenty minutes to ninety minutes
  • Long: ninety minutes to three hours
  • Very Long: more than three hours, such as a twenty-four hour period

Settings of Celebration: pick a suitable location; some options include:

Indoors in Family Home:

  • at kitchen or dining table
  • by fireplace
  • by holiday tree
  • in living room or family room

Outdoors:

  • back or front yard of family home
  • deck
  • nearby park
  • Nature preserve/wilderness area

Yule Log

  • An oak log, plus a fireplace or bonfire area is needed for this form of celebration. The oak log should be very dry so that it will blaze well. It can be decorated with burnable red ribbons of natural fiber and dried holly leaves. In the fireplace or bonfire area, dried kindling should be set to facilitate the burning of the log.
  • Begin by having parent(s) or some other family member describe the tradition of the Yule log. The tale of the Oak King and Holly King from Celtic mythology can be shared as a story, or can be summarized with a statement that the Oak represents the waxing solar year, Winter Solstice to Summer Solstice, and the Holly represents the waning solar year, Summer Solstice to Winter Solstice.
  • Lights are extinguished as much as possible. The family is quiet together in the darkness. Family members quietly contemplate the change in the solar year. Each in her/his own way contemplates the past calendar year, the challenges as well as the good times.
  • Then the Yule Log fire is lit. As it begins to burn, each family member throws in one or more dried holly sprigs and says farewell to the old calendar year. Farewells can take the form of thanksgiving and appreciation and/or a banishment of old habits or personal pains.
  • Once the Yule Log itself starts blazing, then the facilitator invites family members to contemplate the year ahead and the power of possibilities. Each member then throws in an oak twig or acorn into the fire to represent the year ahead, and calls out a resolution and/or a hope.
  • When this process is done, the family sings a song together. The traditional carol, “Deck the Halls,” is good because it mentions the Solstice, the change in the solar year, and the Yule log.
  • Let the Yule Log burn down to a few chunks of charred wood and ashes. Following an ancient tradition, save remnants of the fire and use them to start the Yule Log fire the following year.

Gift Giving

  • Across many cultures for at least several thousand years, gifts have been exchanged among family and friends at Solstice time. Even if the family already has a tradition of exchanging gifts at Christmas or Epiphany, some gifts can be exchanged on Solstice as well. Having gift giving occur over a period of time extends the holiday celebration and is a time honored tradition, as commemorated in the song “Twelve Days of Christmas.”
  • The Solstice gift exchange can take a variety of forms. When all family holiday gifts are displayed under the Yule tree for several days, each family member can select one gift with their own name on it to open on Solstice night or morning. In cases in which family members give each other multiple gifts, each member can select a gift to give each other member. Another method of gift distribution is to have family members place their names in a hat or basket, and when this is done, to each draw a name, which indicates the person to whom they will give a Solstice gift.
  • Still another alternative is to have a gifting experience unique to Solstice. A group of similar, yet distinctive small gifts, individually wrapped can be placed in a large basket or cauldron. There should be one for each family member. At least one extra gift could be included and this could be kept for the family as a whole or later given to a family friend. Some examples of gift groups include an assortment of pieces of tumbled agate or quartz crystals, a collection of animal figurines or exotic sea shells, an array of candles or bells, or a variety of pieces of candy or other food treats. Gift picking can be according to age: oldest to youngest, youngest to oldest; according to birth date in the year; by first name in alphabetical order; by lot; or by some other method. The gift exchange, when involving Nature gifts, can have an educational component. For example, if bird images are the gift form, the family can talk about each type of bird after each figure is unwrapped.
  • A good way to bring closure to the gift exchange on Solstice night is for the family to join hands together in a circle and spend a few moments focusing together on the sharing of love, a on-going gift that transcends time and physical presents.
  • Focus on appreciating each other strengthens the family as well as imbues the gift giving and other Solstice celebration experiences with a spiritual context.

How To Throw a Winter Solstice Party

Set the time: Typically, a solstice party is held during the afternoon, to celebrate the fleeting daylight hours. Since it’s the shortest day of the year, twilight will occur early, so you can watch the last of the sun fade away. Don’t let the early nightfall get you down: At this point, the days can only get longer!

Light it up: The light outside may be dwindling, but your party can still shine brightly. Illuminate the shortest day of the year with lots of candles. Place taper candles in reflective silver holders on the table; adorn the mantle with an assortment of pillar candles in various heights and widths. A fire in the hearth or an outdoor bonfire can become a cozy focal point.

Break out the green:  At its core, the solstice is a celebration of nature, so use lots of green to remind you of the outdoors—whether in the form of evergreen boughs on the mantle or tabletop, or green napkins accenting the buffet.

Eat and drink with seasonal cheer: Warm, winter-appropriate food and drink will entice guests. Go traditional by serving food and drink associated with St. Lucia’s Day, the Swedish expression of a winter solstice celebration. Observed in many European countries, St. Lucia’s Day originally coincided with the solstice before the reformation of the Gregorian calendar.

Traditional Lussekatter (Saffron Buns)

These traditional Swedish yeast buns, known for their delicious saffron flavor, can be made in a variety of different shapes, including an “s,” a figure eight or a cat.

¼ teaspoon saffron threads
1 tablespoon yeast
1 cup milk
½ cup sugar, plus 1 tablespoon
½ cup butter (1 stick)
5 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs, beaten
1 egg white, beaten

Preheat an oven to 375°F.

Using a mortar and pestle, pound the saffron threads to break down strands.

Mix the yeast with ¼ cup of milk and 1 tablespoon of sugar. Set aside.

In a saucepan set over low heat, melt the butter and remaining milk. Add the crushed saffron. Allow the liquid to cool.

In a large bowl, mix together the flour, salt and remaining sugar. Stir the yeast into cooled milk mixture, then mix well with dry ingredients. Add the beaten eggs.

Knead the dough in a bowl for 5–7 minutes. Place the dough on a floured board, and knead another 7–8 minutes. Put the dough in a lightly greased bowl, turning to coat the dough on all sides. Cover the dough and put it in a warm, draft-free place to rise, about 1 hour.

When dough has risen, knead it lightly to push any air out; divide into 10–12 small pieces. Roll each small piece into an 8–10-inch strip. Shape each strip into desired shape, either an “s,” a figure eight or a cat. Place the buns on lightly buttered cookie sheets. Cover them with a cloth and allow them to rise until double in bulk, 1–1½ hours. When the dough has risen, brush it lightly with the egg white. Bake for 15 minutes, or until lightly browned. Let cool on wire rack. Makes 10–12 buns.

Traditional Cuccía (Sicilian Wheat Porridge)

Sicilians celebrate the solstice just as heartily as the Swedes. Their legend holds that St. Lucia brought wheat berries to their starving ancestors during a famine. There are many variations on cuccía, including savory versions with beans. Here we share a sweet rendition; in addition to raisins and cinnamon, you can add chocolate shavings or orange peel.

1 cup wheat berries
½ teaspoon salt
1½ cups whole-milk ricotta
½ cup raisins
Honey, to taste
Cinnamon, for garnish

Soak the wheat berries in cold water, and store overnight, covered, in the refrigerator. The following day, drain the wheat berries and place in a large saucepan with the salt and enough water to cover by 2–3 inches. Cook the wheat berries at a slow simmer, partially covered, about 1 hour or until tender. The kernels will open up slightly.

Drain the wheat berries and combine them with the ricotta. Blend in the raisins and honey to taste. Pour the porridge into a large serving bowl and dust with cinnamon. Serve warm or at room temperature in small bowls. Serves 12.

Wine pairing: With this sweet version of cuccía, Gundlach suggests sipping Moscato d’Asti. Its mild sweetness will stand up to the porridge, and its honey flavor will complement the honeyed ricotta. If you’re opting for a savory porridge, match it with a Sicilian Inzolia, a nutty white wine that’s not overpowered by oak.

Traditional Glögg (Swedish Mulled Wine)

While many versions of this Scandinavian yuletide punch exist, every rendition invariably calls for red wine, orange peel, clove and cardamom. If you’re pressed for time, prepare this drink one day early and reheat it before serving.

½ cup sugar
2 cinnamon sticks, broken in half
4 whole cloves
6 cardamom pods, crushed
1 orange peel, cut into strips
1 ginger root, peeled and cut in half
1 cup brandy
2 cups Pinot Noir, or other light-bodied red wine
2 cups Port
Raisins, for garnish
Blanched almonds, for garnish

In a large pot, combine the sugar with 1 cup of water. Over high heat, stir the liquid with a wooden spoon until the sugar is completely dissolved, and then bring to a boil. Lower the heat to medium, and add the cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, orange peel and ginger. Stir again, keeping the liquid at a simmer.

Add the brandy, wine and Port. Taste the punch, and add additional sugar or spice to taste. Strain and ladle into mugs. Garnish with almonds and raisins, and serve warm. Serves 6.

 

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