December 21 is the shortest day of the year in the northern hemisphere. Locales above the Arctic Circle, including parts of Canada, Alaska, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia, Greenland, and the very northern tip of Iceland will experience 24 hours of total darkness. You can find out when the sun will rise and set where you live here.
Winter was a long, dark, and difficult time for many of our forebears. The solstice provided an opportunity for people to celebrate the return of more daylight.
How did ancient people celebrate?
The ancient Romans exchanged candles and other gifts during Saturnalia, their week-long solstice celebration.
In Persia, the king changed places with one of his subjects on the winter solstice, and the subject was crowned during an elaborate street party.
In Rome, masters and servants switched roles; senators wore simple, rather than elaborate togas; men sometimes dressed as women; fights and grudges were forgotten; and other everyday conventions were put aside.
In England and Scandinavia, people lit a Yule log, or oak branch, which was often replaced by a large candle that burned throughout the day.
Japanese Shinto farmers lit fires on the mountain sides to welcome back the sun.
- Mistletoe and Evergreen Trees
The British Celts put mistletoe on their altars. And the Germans and Romans decorated their houses with evergreen trees, wreaths, and garlands as a symbol of life and renewed fertility.
- Sun Festivals
The Hopi celebrated the return of the sun with ceremonies. Priests dressed in animal skins with feathers in their head-dresses to look like the rays of the sun.
Why celebrate the first day of winter?
The holiday season is busy enough for most of us. Why add anything else to the to-do list?
Celebrating the first day of each season has many benefits. It offers the perfect opportunity to:
- Note the cyclical changes in the soil, sky, trees, plants, and wildlife.
- Reflect on the lessons each time of year imparts. Winter, for example, reminds us of the importance of quiet, rest, and dormancy.
- Learn about different celebrations around the world.
- Celebrate! And seasonal celebrations are affordable, nature-based, and as easy or elaborate as you want them to be.
- Be grateful for the gifts of food, family, and friendship.
The key to celebrating the first day of winter, when most of us are busy planning other celebrations, is to keep it simple, and choose traditions that give you time to relax and reflect.
- Establish a table-top, shelf, or mantel to display a seasonal tableau. On the first day of winter, replace the fall decorations with evergreen boughs, pine cones, candles, mistletoe, or whatever symbolizes fall in your family.
- Collect books about the seasons at yard sales, used-book stores, and thrift shops year-round. Choose a special basket or shelf for them, and change them out on the first day of each season. Or take a trip to the library a few days before your celebration. Some of my family’s favorite winter picture-books are: Stella, Queen of the Snow by Mary-Louise Gay; The Big Snow by Berta Hader; The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats; A Kitten Tale by Eric Rohmann; Snow by Cynthia Rylant; Winter is the Warmest Season by Lauren Stringer; and Owl Moon by Jane Yolen.
- Read aloud from The Winter Solstice by Ellen Jackson.
- Go for a nature walk or go cross-country skiing, and enjoy the brisk air and winter scenery.
- Watch the sun rise and set.
- Make a seasonal feast, with foods like beets, winter squash, potatoes, onions, kale, cabbage, or parsnips.
- Eat by candlelight.
- Blow out the candles and turn off the lights after dinner, sit together quietly, and experience and reflect on darkness.
- Share one thing you’ve lost and one thing you’ve gained over the past year.
- Bring an evergreen bough inside and make it into a wishing tree. Secure the bough in a bucket with rocks. Cut leaves out of green construction paper. Have each person write down a wish for the coming year on each leaf. Hang the leaves on the tree using a hole punch and yarn or ribbon.
- Sit around the fire or cuddle under blankets and tell stories about your best and worst holiday memories.
- The Winter Solstice by John Matthews
- The Book of the Year: A Brief History of Our Seasonal Holidays by Anthony Aveni
- Celebrate the Solstice by Richard Heinberg
- Ceremonies of the Seasons by Jennifer Cole
- The Winter Solstice by Ellen Jackson
(Updated version of post from December 14, 2009.)
How do you celebrate the change in the seasons?