Celebrating the Winter Solstice

Winter Solstice: December 21st – 22nd

At this time of year, we are bombarded with artificial light and colour, adverts, demands and family pressures. It is easy to loose the essence of the season in all the commercialisation and expectation. Without a religious faith as such, I have to try hard to find a deeper meaning within the festivities, beyond the dreaded glittery gift wrap, ‘secret santa’s and “who’s been forgotten from the christmas card list this year?”.

When in need of a hit of seasonal connectivity, I turn to the calendar of pagan sabbats: 8 festivals or markers through the year that pull together not only our rural heritage, but also an awareness of nature and its cycles, and how they effect us too. Imbolc, Ostara, Beltane, Litha/Midsummer, Lammas, Mabon, Samhain, Winter Solstice/Yule.

Mid-December is the winter solstice. Although it may feel like we are in the middle of winter, weather wise the coldest month is yet to come. Light levels however, are at their lowest now, as the winter solstice marks the longest night and shortest day of the year. Now the suns progress seems to stall and hold still, until in a few days time, despite plummeting temperatures and the long drag through the grey skies (and greyer moods) of January, slowly, minute by minute, days will start to grow a little longer. The sun, even if we can’t see it behind the drizzle and murk, will rise incrementally higher in the sky as it travels east-west.

So how to celebrate the Winter Solstice? Well, whether you mark it as a stand alone festival, or blend it into the mix of your Christmas revels (theres a lot of similarities after all) there are many ways to bring the spirit of this ancient nature focused celebration to life. Here are a few ideas I try to incorporate every year.

Embrace the light
Candles and fairly lights are part of my life all year round, but never more so than in the dark of December. It seems fitting to light stings of bulbs in the window or candles at the heart of the table at dinner, as though by doing so, we can show solidarity with the sun and encourage it to bring its warming rays back to our days.

Dec the Halls
Well, you can hardly refer to our little cottage flat as ‘Halls’ but you get the idea. Evergreens have long been held as a symbol of life and longevity; a reminder that not all is dead and or slumbering in winter. In the week leading up to the solstice, I try gather holly, ivy and fir to adorn the fireplace, weave a wreath to hang on the front door. The christmas tree in its pot is brought inside to receive its dressing of lights and ornaments. Dressing the tree is something that takes me right back to the christmases of my childhood, when I always insisted it was my job to do the decorations and took the task very seriously! These days, christmas carols and a glass of wine are more essential ingredients than tinsel and sparkly reindeer!

I also like to have bulbs and include my house plants in my room decorations; paper white bulbs or hyacinths forced for indoor blooms, or a pot of flowering cyclamen or a ‘christmas cactus’ on the windowsill, bring a little bit of living nature inside at a time when it can be hard to find outdoors.

Back in the autumn, I planted up a few small pots with a handful of spring bulbs and some winter flowering plants. I hoped there’d be a few social gatherings through the winter, and to be able to hand over a gift to the host of a little pot of flowers (that will keep on giving all through this season and the next), is far more satisfying than a cheep bottle of wine from the corner shop.

When I asked my husband how he would celebrate the Winter Solstice, his first response revolved entirely around food and drink. In winter, we become obsessed with food; rich sweet dishes and potent drinks that warm our hearts as much as fill our stomachs.

One recipe I turn to time and again, fits in now just as well as it did when I previously shared it on the blog in midsummer – my ‘Best Ever Picnic Cake’ (click here for recipe) transforms into a wonderful winter treat when spiced up with a little booze, speciality dried fruit, or sugary marzipan and icing.

Get outside
Nothing lifts my mood and makes me feel more connected and happy in winter than a walk. I try to get outside in my lunch-breaks, (I work outdoors, but its still good to step away from the bustle and workplace) and build a walk into my days off – even if its only as simple as taking the christmas cards to the post box on foot, rather than getting the car out. I am lucky to live on the edge of a rural village in the heart of the South Downs National Park, and a nearby surfaced cycle path offers chance to stretch my legs even when the fields are sodden and hill paths slick with treacherous chalk mud. Even on the coldest days, wrapping up in layers of woollens and feeling the crackle of ice beneath my wellingtons as I follow the hedgerow across the farm is a tonic that helps to ease tension from my chest and relax my shoulders. The fresh air and the rhythm of walking never fails to help tease out the tangle of thoughts in my mind. I look for jewels of colour, signs of creatures having crossed my tracks, the flit and hover of small birds; all little details that amplify the beauty of the season.

This year…

‘The Christmas star’: on the night of the winter solstice 2020, a rare astronomical event will take place. The planets of Saturn and Jupiter will align in the night sky, in the early hours of the evening after dusk, creating a seemingly bright ‘star’ before the rotation of the earth leaves them obscured below the horizon. Look to the southwest horizon in the hour after sunset.

The Holly and the Ivy – whilst most holly berries have been gleaned by birds (and for festive decorations), now is the time that the last of the seasons berries ripens. Ivy flowers late in the autumn, and the berries ripen now long after most other hedgerow fruits have been eaten, making them a valuable food source into the colder months, particularly loved by pigeons, blackbirds, thrushes and blackcaps.

In the kitchen garden – are you among the many who discovered the immense rewards of gardening during Covid lockdown this spring? If you are looking to continue your new or extended hobby into the next growing season, winter is not a time for sitting on your laurels! Use these long evenings to plan your plantings and projects for next year, browse seed catalogues, and give your useful tools a bit of tlc. You can even get your hands dirty on dry days as the shortest day is traditionally the time for planting Garlic, giving it a full 6 months to mature before you harvest it on the longest day in mid summer!

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