As part of the get-back-to-nature/at-one-with-the-elements lifestyle I’m aiming to lead, I’ve been looking at the pagan festivities and the relevance they hold in our lives today. Today, December 21st, marks the Winter Solstice – the shortest day of the year. This is when the northern part of the earth tilts away from the sun, and the sun is at its lowest point on the horizon; meaning the fewest hours of daylight.
Thousands of years ago, people didn’t understand how the earth moves around the sun. They panicked when the days grew shorter, and fretted over whether the sun would return. In fairness to them, they had every right to fret – they needed the sun for warmth, light, and to grow food. As a way of appealing to their gods to return the sun, people held long ceremonies and festivals. Many of these rituals still hold fast today, although the festivities are associated with different names, depending on your beliefs.
In some traditions, today sees the great battle between the Holly King (who represents the dark) and the Oak King (who represents the light.) The Oak King is triumphant, bringing the return of the light. When the Summer Solstice comes round, the Holly King will reclaim his crown, bringing the darker days once again.
I decided that I wanted to mark today with my family. My children go to a Catholic school (as it was the best school in our catchment), and they have been learning about the religious take on the winter festivities (Christmas!) I thought it would be fun to do something a bit different, whilst at the same time looking at the similarities.
We started out by having a family story. This lovely book by Wendy Pfeffer tells of how the Winter Solstice was first calculated by astronomers, and the different ways that people celebrated it over the millennia.
The children were engaged with the story – most of it anyway (stuck earlier in traffic for an hour and half at lunchtime, they were a bit over-excited!) They loved hearing about how people worried that the sun wouldn’t return, and thought that they must have been silly people! I explained that the sun was the main source of food, and that without it, the people would starve – as would also be the case today! This sobered them up a bit, probably as they thought about how long it took them to get lunch earlier!
This talk of food led us on to a discussion of our Winter Solstice feast. We were having pork stew, as a nod to the wild boar hunts held at this time of year. My littlest-middle ray loves to help with the cooking, so she and I trotted off to the kitchen to begin preparing it.
The next part of our feast was a gingerbread house. Ginger is known for its warming properties (although wasn’t found in Europe until the early 1100s), so very fitting for a celebration of light and warmth. Usually we make our annual gingerbread house from scratch, but I knew we would be short on time this year. After our afternoon gridlock extravaganza (I promise I’ll stop going on about it now 😉) I was glad I’d bought a pre-made kit instead! We set to work decorating the panels, and then assembled it. It turned out just as I’d hoped it would – wonderfully wonky, with sweets sliding down the not-quite-dry icing. Perfectly imperfect!
Whilst we waited for the icing to dry, and for our stew to finish bubbling, we thought we’d have another go at some magick! Since the return of the light is a time for new beginnings, we all wrote down a New Year’s resolution on a piece of paper (pentacle on the back again) and folded it in three. We then scampered outside to our little barbecue bucket, where my husband was once again sparking up the flint and steel. We formed our circle and chanted: May this Solstice and turning of the wheel bring you love, peace, and good fortune in the coming year. Let us welcome the returning sun with Hope and Joy. May you never thirst! We then threw our resolutions on the fire and welcomed back the light.
Although it was dark by this time, our next job was to collect some holly and rosemary from the garden and bring it indoors. The tradition of bringing greenery indoors came long before we started decorating trees. The holly signifies the Holly King’s defeat and his handing over of the crown to the Oak King. Rosemary is known for attracting good energies, and was the traditional gift on New Year’s day. We brought a twig of each inside and lit our Winter Solstice candle next to the jar (taking care not to set it too close!)
We then set the table and enjoyed our yummy pork stew together. A festivity isn’t complete, without family or friends to share it with.
I did plan for us to do so much more by way of celebrating the day. We were going to make bird feeders, sun salutation masks, as well as drink mulled apple juice and have cosy, quiet reflection time with candles and music. You can’t do everything though, plus I felt we managed to fit in quite a bit, considering we also have a baby to attend to. It also means we have the celebrations for next year all organised!
Here’s a picture of said baby being mischievous!
A very happy, light-filled Winter Solstice to you all! How did you celebrate?