How to Celebrate Winter Solstice

December 1, 2016



It’s five o’clock in the evening and it’s DARK. Even though it’s still reasonable fall weather here in Philadelphia, every fiber of my being is telling me it’s time to hunker down. In the last several years I’ve been longing for holiday traditions that align with my witchy, earth-loving, radical world view, while still keeping room for nostalgia and accessibility for a range of beliefs and practices. Partly this is because I have a three-year-old daughter, and I’m thinking seriously about what she learns and what memories we’re creating. Holidays teach values. The ways we celebrate communicate layers of lessons. And, for this reason, I also want traditions that don’t just feel like work and obligation for me. I want to be invested in more than aesthetic of my holidays. I want it to be more than time off. I even want it to be more than good food and time with loved ones. I want MEANING.


Return to the Roots of “Christmas”

Winter Solstice is the perfect opportunity. Since we all know that most Christmas traditions are based on European pagan roots, there’s a lot to work with by just scratching the surface. In short:


  • bringing evergreens into the home is a reminder that life is ongoing, even though most of the world looks barren (at least, it does here in the Northern Hemisphere)

  • Exchanging gifts is a reminder of abundance in a time of relative scarcity.

  • Giving gifts to children in particular is a gratitude for the light that they bring into the world and the joy that they share with us daily

  • The theme of birth and hope are directly correspondent to the slow return of the light, following the darkest night of the year


So, if you are a Christmas celebrator already, just shifting how you talk about and think about the traditions can be enough. I grew up celebrating Hanukkah and Christmas, and it’s a little harder to spin the war story of the Maccabees into this tradition. But still, there is the miracle of light. And that seems to be a thread through many religious traditions this time of year.



Spend more time in the Dark

But I want more than just a new spin on old traditions. Two years ago I took inspiration from my friend Laura, who has been hosting a candlelight party on Solstice. I decided that I, too, would have a candlelight party, AND I would have a full 24 hours with no electric light. I want to experience, in some limited, but honest way, what it feels like to actually adapt my actions to the rhythms of the earth. Our ancestors spent so much more time in the darkness. I find that keeping the lights low in winter and using lots of candlelight around the house helps to soothe my nervous system. Try it! Even for a day or two, try limiting the electric lights in your house. If you have kids, make a game out of it. Notice how different things are, and how your soul feels, when we allow ourselves time in the darkness.


Host a Candlelight Party

The first time I did the candlelight party, I was floored. Filling my whole house with candlelight was stunningly beautiful, first of all. And then...I have never had a gathering that felt so good. Unlike many holiday parties, the vibe was grounded, sweet, intimate...even with a lot of people there! The second year was the same. Last year we had a movie party for the kids in an upstairs bedroom while grownups drank mulled wine and lounged around downstairs. As a hostess, it was wildly easy. I felt able to be present, to connect, and to feel like we all were gathered at the hearth of our community, sharing stories, laughing, having open hearts.



Do Ritual with Children

Children hold a special place at Solstice time. We believe that all children are the carriers of the light and the hope. To continue with the candlelight theme, this year on Solstice, I will have my daughter help lighting the candles at sundown, starting our 24 hours of no electric light. We’ll sing songs, and say a blessing for the darkest night. I definitely recommend coming up with some ritual that allows kids to interact with candle lighting. It’s really magical to them, and teaches them about the beauty of the darkness when everything rests, and the return of the light that helps everything grow.


photo from our annual In Sacred Balance community celebration


(Prayer suggestion for candle lighting: “bless the darkness that helps life to rest and bless the light that helps life to grow”)





 I bet you’ve heard this word in the carol “here we go a wassailing.” But do you know what this tradition is?!? I just learned it, and I’m so excited. It’s singing to spirit of the trees (particularly apple trees) and offering a libation of cider so that they grow strong and healthy in the coming year. In our area, many of the apple trees had crop failure due to a late frost and drought. So what better time to go sing to them and share our love! But you can also expand this tradition to singing to the spirits of any tree or plant that you love. Another great one to do with kids!




Have a candlelight vigil

This year, in addition to the candlelight party, I’m inviting guests to stay through the night. As the celebration winds down, we’ll settle in for some song, ritual, and prayer on behalf of our world. Hopefully the kids will fall asleep upstairs. But if not, they’ll join us. On the darkest night of the year, there’s a magical opportunity to acknowledge the fear and worry we hold.


This year, in the wake of the election, I am afraid of racism, Muslim profiling, war, xenophobia and anti-immigrant violence, homophobic and transphobic legislation, environmental destruction, corporate power, fascism. But it’s not just this year. The past two years at Solstice, my heart was heavy with the awakened awareness of police violence and the tragic loss of black and brown lives. The year before that, when my daughter was just a few months old, Sandy Hook had led to the devastating loss of all those children and school teachers. Solstice time often shows us the juxtaposition of that which is scary and that which is hopeful. Noticing this is an opportunity to give birth to new rituals. If you do decide to hold a vigil, here’s a magical reminder: always give energy to what you hope for and are trying to manifest. We can acknowledge our fears as a reason for gathering, but make sure your rituals are centered on breathing life into a better future.


As dawn breaks, celebrate! Even if it’s a quiet celebration. Light a new candle that you’ve saved for this moment. Pour a gratitude libation on the earth. Dance. Sing. Welcome the sun and with it, the hope.

 photo credit: ShuNahSii Rose, 




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