The winter solstice is fast approaching and I haven’t really said anything about it lately. If you have followed me in this space for a while you’ll know that I carefully came to a decision about celebrating the change of the seasons and winter solstice as our families’ holiday tradition. We intentionally don’t celebrate Christmas. If you asked us over for Christmas dinner we would come and celebrate with you, and indeed we will go to my mom’s house for Christmas because she celebrates Christmas. For us it will be a happy occasion to be with family, but it won’t have the same importance that solstice does.
I feel the need to say that there is no right way to celebrate at this time of year. What works for your family is the way you should celebrate. Whether you celebrate Yule, Christmas, Bodhi Day, Hanukkah or Kwanzaa or nothing at all, doesn’t matter. What matters is what feels right for you, guilt free.
Guilt aside here is a bit of how we celebrate. We do a countdown calendar starting December 1st. I plan nature based activities and winter books to read and occasional treat making along with craft activities to help us get ready for our week without lights. We also have a candle path spiral. We begin lighting on the first of the month and light the corresponding number of candles each night (we use electric tea candles since normal ones don’t last long enough, and the small kids have fun participating turning them on and off).
We decorate the house using real found pine branches. I like this a lot because when the season is over I can just put the decorations into the bonfire and there is nothing to be stored. Plus the house smells great. This year I finally solved the “tree issue”: I love having twinkle lights and a place to put gifts this time of year but I don’t love plastic nor do I love the idea of get a cut tree from Oregon which will die in all of two days out here in the dry desert. This year we saw a large rosemary plant that had been cut into the shape of a tree at our local nursery. Seeing as I use rosemary all the time in my cooking and I don’t have in my garden yet, I figured why not?! It’s about 3 ft high and we keep it in a big pot, which rosemary tolerates well anyway, and then when the season is up we will put it outside. Next year it will be bigger and we’ll bring it in again. Problem solved. I like edible solutions!
Last of all, and the most important tradition for us (this one always surprises people) is our week without lights: a week before the winter solstice we turn out the lights and only use candles or oil lamps (cell phone screens are OK in a pinch). I would love for this to be an electricity free week, but we have an electric stove and a fridge and a chest freezer…. so we just say no electric lights or TV/computers. For now going without electric lights is plenty for the girls. S has already been anxious to turn out the lights. There is an immense tranquility that comes from using only candle light.
At the beginning of the longest night, on Solstice Eve after dinner, we burn our yule log (we don’t have fireplace so I dug out an improvised fire pit outside) and then turn all the lights back on as symbol of welcoming the new season (we miss the darkness for a few days, but the the convenience of artificial light is inescapable). Each family member also gives one gift to each other family member (so we currently get 3 gifts each).
We’ve been celebrating this way for four years now and it has been so much fun. I like how we’ve changed our ideas of what this season means to be something that is very meaningful to us. Not just what everyone else is doing because that’s what people do. We don’t have to follow the mainstream ideas, and although that was hard at first, it’s getting much easier now. This time of year is only as special as you or I choose to make it. So make it your own, there is no single right way to celebrate.
Next year we plan to have a countdown calendar, gifts, and other appropriate celebrations for summer solstice as well: poor thing gets no love! Let me know if you have any traditions for either solstice, we are always looking for ideas!