The Winter Solstice occurs sometime between December 20th and 22nd and is the shortest day and longest night of the year and the official start of winter, though some folks will feel that winter has set in long before its arrival and some of us are saying “you ain’t seen nothin’ yet!”. This time of darkness gives rise to a number of holidays to brighten up the gloom of the season with a celebration anticipating the return of the light. I like to use the name Midwinter as a path-neutral alternative, but Yule or Yuletide is also suitable and if it’s easiest to say Christmas, I’ll do that too. Whatever you want to call it, it’s a great time for a party. The best time for a party.
But many Pagans, especially those still building new traditions, are sometimes at a loss for how to proceed. Many of the most obvious traditions seem to belong to other religions and many feel the need to reject these because of it. But I say to you- nobody owns them. These are universal traditions that highlight are similarities more than our differences. We are a human family and we should all celebrate together. So, I say to you: Invite them all; eat, drink and be merry! Party like a Pagan.
The Winter Solstice means different things to different people. For many it celebrates the birth of a divine child who will bring light back into the world, either literally (as in Sun=light) or figuratively (a savior). For some, it is an entirely secular holiday set aside for spending time with family and friends without regard to what the Gods are doing.
In truth, the traditions of the Winter Solstice are probably much more ancient than any myths we associate with it. The dark of winter was a very scary time for our ancestors and just about everyone would have lost someone they knew before springtime. Cold, malnutrition, suffocation from inadequate ventilation, food-borne illnesses from stored food, viruses and parasites brought in by animals seeking shelter from the elements and bacteria benefiting from the fact that no significant cleaning could get done without a “nice day” to ensure everything dried before it froze meant many people didn’t make it.
The cold weather and the lack of electricity to counter the effects of the waning sunlight meant that most people spent the majority of their winters isolated from their neighbors. Some cultures believed that this dark time of the year allowed spirits to wander free and they heard the cries of their dead and malignant spirits on the voices of the storms, giving them further reason not to venture past their front door.
But our ancestors didn’t spend their winters in idleness. They spent them spinning and weaving and sewing the wool and flax they gathered during the warmer months; making baskets and mats from the reeds and straws they had stored up; carving useful objects out of wood: bowls, spoons, pipes. Even making toys.
Soon, the light would return and they knew it. And once that turning point hit the cabin fever would send them out into the light to seek out their neighbors and friends, to make sure that everyone they knew was okay and to offer aid where aid was needed. And of course, they brought gifts. Whatever projects they were working on while they were shut in became gifts for their neighbors- especially for those who helped them gather the materials – and those neighbors had gifts in return.
And what do people do when they’ve been cooped up for months and finally find themselves standing in the sunshine with friends they haven’t seen in quite awhile? They sing! They dance! They drink! They eat! and they make merry.
Hosts would want to decorate their homes, to brighten things up, to improve the smell a bit even. Evergreen boughs were perfect for this. And candles, of course, so you could see your dance partner. Letting the fire go out was never a good idea before matches and butane.
These ancient Winter Solstice traditions – gift-giving, charity, singing and general partying, and decorating with evergreens are inherent to humans living in Northern climes. These are gut traditions. The myths that go along with them vary from person to person, group to group, but we can all agree on the traditions which speak to the very heart of us. The part that needs comfort and companionship and light and greenery in the coldest, loneliest, darkest, dreariest of seasons and cannot help but burst into song when that need is fulfilled.
Decorating for the Winter Solstice
When decorating for the winter solstice the theme seems to be to make everything the opposite of what it is. The Winter Solstice is cold, gray and dark. Winter Solstice decorations are warm, colorful (gaudy even) and bright. Whatever greenery can be obtained should be. Your evergreen trees should be pruned in the winter anyway, so bring those prunings in and make an evergreen wreath and some evergreen garlands.
These bright decorations symbolically balance out or negate the winter cold and darkness, but some choose to embrace it instead with images of sparkling snowflakes, icicles and snowmen. This is can also be also quite festive and lovely.
Many people blend the themes for a harmonious look.
Colors for the Winter Solstice
Colors for Winter Solstice events should evoke warmth and light and the promise of new life. Gold represents the sun and fire, red is fire and joy and green holds the promise of the coming spring. These are the most popular colors of the season.
The colors red and green can easily be brought in using berries and evergreen branches. Holly and cranberries can be used to good effect. Apples are also popular.
Another popular color combination is white, blue and silver. These colors to me evoke images of the silvery moon in a cloudless sky reflecting off of snow. They seem to embrace the season rather than seek to banish it as a more fiery color combination does.
You can get really creative with the centerpiece and have a lot of fun with it. I think candles are probably the only requirement. Here are a few ideas.
- A bunch of greenery surrounding large pillar candles is a gorgeous classic. Maybe add some pinecones dressed up with gold paint or glitter to complete the effect or some fruits and nuts.
- A Yule Log candle holder. You can dress this up further with some greenery and berries.
- A boar’s head with an apple in its mouth is more traditional than you might think.
- A large bowl (or cauldron) full of red and green apples and citrus fruits.
- A gingerbread house or some other scene made of gingerbread figures.
Candles, candles, everywhere. And strings of LEDs of course. You can get nifty solar powered lights for outside too.
If you have brought fresh evergreen boughs into the house, you’ve probably got that fragrance handled. Otherwise, you can gather sap very easily from trees and these can be set in the top of an oil warmer to release their fragrance. Be careful, it’s very sticky and looks very dirty. If you’d rather spring for oils, do it.
You can fill your home with the warm scent of cinnamon and cloves by keeping a crockpot full of mulled cider on low throughout the festivities. Bundle the herbs up in a bag so you can ladle out your cider without getting bits of clove in there and keep adding cider to it as your guests drink it.
The symbols of Yule are many and varied. Like our color combination there seem to be two major categories: those symbols that embrace the season, and those that seek to banish it. There is also a third category based around gift-giving.
- Images of light, such as candles, stars, the sun help to drive away the darkness
- Birds who fly south for the winter bear the promise of springtime- geese and ducks, robins
- As do images of animals who hibernate in the winter, such as bears.
- Evergreen trees, holly, ivy, any plants that stay bright in winter bear the promise of greenery in the summer, but also celebrate the uniqueness of the season.
- Snowflakes and anything to do with snow, including snowmen, sleds, shovels, etc. celebrate the season
- As so images of winter clothing, esp. boots and mittens
- And animals that thrive in snowy climes, cardinals, arctic foxes, snowshoe hares, reindeer, penguins and polar bears
- Images of Santa Clause also bear the promise of presents, though many also associate him with the spirit of the season.
- Stockings, gift boxes and ribbons remind us of the gift giving aspect of the season
Cover your Yuletide altar with greenery and candles. Other than that, it depends on what you’re focusing on. You may be embracing the winter and celebrating winter spirits or spirits of nature or focusing on the battle between light and dark or perhaps you’re celebrating the birth of a new God. If your celebration is strictly secular but focused on celebrating social bonds, you may wish to dedicate your altar to you Hearth Goddess, in gratitude for the protection your home and hearth offer from the cold or decorate it with family photos to celebrate how important they are to your life.
Group Activities for Your Yuletide Celebration
- Decorate a tree. This can be a group activity, especially if there are children involved or you can have it ready when everyone arrives as part of the decor.
- Decorate a tree for the wildlife. Strings of berries, dried fruit and cheerios make lovely garlands. You can also string together peanuts in the shell. Suet balls in netting can be decorated with some pretty ribbon, pinecones smeared with peanut butter or sun butter can be rolled in birdseed, sliced apples and oranges hung on a ribbon are also lovely and a tasty treat for your local critters. You can also get bundles of millet that are really cool-looking to hang from a ribbon.
- Make cookies. Make the dough ahead of time and refrigerate it and set up a decorating station, sundae bar style.
- Sing carols. There are many secular ones and several Christian carols have been rewritten by members of the Pagan community. You can find some here. If your neighbors are amenable, go caroling or wassailing.
- Wassail your orchard. Assuming you have an orchard. Or even a single fruit tree, or just your garden. Sing to it, beat drums and blow whistles to scare off harmful spirits and pour it libations to let it know you’d like some gifts back as soon as it is able.
- Collect winter clothing, toys or food to give away to people in need (pick one, if you make it general it just gets too complicated).
- Have a gift exchange. You can have people draw names randomly ahead of time or do a White Elephant exchange. I find the latter to be easiest and very fun as it’s an activity in itself. You just tell everyone to bring a wrapped gift in a certain price range, between $5 and $10 for example. Then you just take turns. The first person picks a gift and opens it, the second person can steal that gift or pick a new gift. If the second person steals the first gift, the first person gets to pick a new one. At the end you can let people trade. This can be hilarious, but I find very young children and some teenagers can’t always handle this game.
The Winter Solstice Celebratory Meal
Lots of foods are associated with the Winter Solstice. The foods we choose are those that our ancestors would have relied upon back in the day. Preserved meats like ham and sausages would have made up much of their winter protein, supplemented by fresh game, particularly wild boar was popular and my own ancestors raised geese specifically to fatten up that special one just for Christmas dinner.
Dried fruits like dates, prunes, figs and raisins are also popular as are fruits and vegetables that store well, sweet potatoes, potato]es, winter squash, apples and nuts as well as heavy and heavily spiced cakes and breads, as grain stores well all winter- and they’d be stuffed with dried fruit and nuts and possibly liquor as well.