As the Earth turns once more towards the time of the Solstice, people around the world are preparing for festive celebrations. At this time of year, many modern societies encourage increased consumerism with its subsequent detrimental environmental effects.(1) Many permaculture practitioners, including readers of this site, are probably already engaged in finding ways to celebrate and give gifts at this time of year without causing damage to the ecosystem, and this article will explore some ideas for how we can do this. This year has seen celebrations of all kinds around the globe cancelled amidst scares of spread of the corona virus(2, 3, 4) and resultant social isolation seems to be having a negative effect on people’s mental health(5), so it seems especially important to revive community and bonding practices, as much as we can.
Solstice and Regeneration
We are now coming to the so-called ‘still-point’ of the year; the time when the balance of light and darkness in the day stays the same for three days and then tips from one to the other. In the Northern hemisphere, this is the Winter Solstice, and in the Southern hemisphere, the Summer Solstice(6). As I explored in my article ‘The Solstice and Regeneration’(7) last year, many cultures all over the world have come to associate this time with themes of rebirth and regeneration.
For example, the ancient British festival of Yule, celebrating the turn of the ‘wheel of the year’, is associated with the story of the Holly King, ruler of the dark half of the year, who on the Solstice is killed so that the light can return.(8, 9) This tradition has been assimilated into the Christian festival of Christmas, where people all over the world decorate their houses using holly branches or representations of holly to this day.
What I feel is important to understand about this tradition from a permaculture perspective is that the ancient cultures who engaged in this ritual understood that the Holly King was definitely dead, and also that he would definitely be reborn at the right time (the Summer Solstice, when the balance of light and darkness begins tipping once again).(8, 9)
Our ancestors, and members of many so-called primitive cultures who still celebrate the light and darkness of the year to this day, seem to have a fundamentally different view of death to many people who have been raised in modern societies (see for example 10, 11). To the ancient Britons who cut down the holly and burned the Yule log, death was recognised as a necessary part of life. One of the ancient Yule practices which my help with reconnecting to this understanding is that of the labyrinth.(12)
A labyrinth is a kind of maze, but whereas in a maze there are some paths which come to a dead end, in a labyrinth all paths lead, eventually, to the centre.(12) To walk the labyrinth is a kind of meditation, with the aim being to come eventually to the centre of your being. Like other Yule traditions this has been assimilated into Christianity, with many Christian cathedrals having meditation labyrinths inside them which you can walk through, for example, Chartres in France.(13)
If you have any kind of flat space at your home, you can make your own labyrinth simply by marking one on the ground with chalk or charcoal, or using leaves or stones to mark the pathways. On the Magickal Kitchen blog, Leandra Witchwood suggests marking the lines with candles,(12) which would certainly add the symbolism of bringing light into the darkest part of the year, particularly if you are in the Northern Hemisphere. However, charcoal or chalk is usually less costly than candles, and can make just as magical a labyrinth.
Those with limited space could make a ‘finger labyrinth’,(14)) where it is just big enough for you to move your finger through the pathways.
To see more ideas for how to celebrate death as part of life, you could check out my article here.(13)
At this time we may find it helpful to celebrate those aspects of our lives not only which are dying but also new things which we wish to call into being. As with the contemplation of death, this is not a literal, but rather a metaphorical or symbolic exercise, which seems especially pertinent at the end of a year in which many people all over the world have been experiencing the end of patterns of life or habits which we were previously engaged in. The fact that many of our old patterns and habits have had to change this year may be an invitation in itself to question whether such activities where really healthy or not. For example, if you usually fly to a different place for the festive holidays, but decide not to this year because of virus scares, perhaps you can ask yourself if it is really a holistic practice to go on so many journeys by plane, even once travel restrictions are lifted?
There are many simple ways in which you could ritualise such a symbol of letting go of old patterns, ready for the rebirth of new ones. One of the simplest I know is to write down those things you wish to let go of; for example, ‘fear of death’, ‘financial worry’, etc; and burn them in a fire. If you do not have access to a fire, you can use a candle-flame (being careful of what is around the candle, of course!).
Then you can write what you wish to call in more of, or to be (symbolically) born, and keep this list close to you. For example, you may write ‘creativity’, ‘connection with nature’, etc. If you prefer to work with a different element, you can release those things you wish to get rid of into running water, such as a nearby stream or the ocean. In this case, I would recommend not using paper, which may cause unbalance in an aquatic ecosystem, but instead perhaps to focus your attention into a leaf or stone which you then release. As I hope you can see from these examples, this kind of practice is very flexible, and I invite you to choose whatever feels right for you.
Presents and Presence
A festive tradition all over the world at this time of year is that of giving gifts. This tradition is drawn from the practice of many cultures all over the world of giving offerings to the Gods (see for example 16), in order to receive blessings and abundance in return. The basic symbol of this practice, I would say, is that you cannot receive new things until you have given something of value to the world. This is especially true for a social species such as human beings where we rely on each others’ compassion and goodwill to a large extent, even in isolationist modern societies.
“We know that there is no help for us but from one another, that no hand will save us if we do not reach out our hand. And the hand that you reach out is empty, as mine is…. All you have is what you are, and what you give.”)(17)
Of course, in many modern cultures, this practice of gift-giving has become somewhat amplified to the point where the symbolism is forgotten or seen as less important than the gift itself. This could be a problem in that it encourages increased consumption of the Earth’s resources and usually more waste than the rest of the year. For example, in the UK alone it is estimated that 1 billion Christmas cards are sent – and, later, discarded, every year – the “equivalent of 33 million trees.”)(1)
Readers of this site are probably already engaging in environmentally-conscious festive practices, such as prioritising taking time to visit friends and family and give the gift of your presence, rather than spending money and resources on gifts given in absence. E-cards could also be seen as more environmentally-friendly than paper cards,)(18) though there is the energy which goes into powering computers to consider.
This can be difficult when you wish to maintain relationships with friends and family who perhaps do not understand your lifestyle choices. This year in particular it may be difficult to give the gift of presence, as many governments worldwide have imposed restrictions on social gatherings,)(2, 3, 4) and forbidden ‘at-risk’ people from being in contact with other humans (see for example 19). In such cases, you may wish to prioritise ‘People Care’)(20) by sending a Christmas card to your elderly relative who doesn’t know how to use a computer, and who is stuck at home or in a nursing home with no visitors allowed, even if you usually do not send cards as you wish to save paper.
All the practices mentioned in this article were originally developed, I believe, in order to build trust between members of a community, and strengthen bonds of friendship and love. In these uncertain times it seems especially important to remember, find or maintain such bonds, wherever you are and however you choose to celebrate this festive season. If we cannot meet friends and family in person we can still develop such bonds with ourselves, such as with the labyrinth practice, and by engaging in self-reflection become more ready to give authentically when we do socialise again. May your festive celebrations be full of such authentic connections and cheer.
1. Cox, A, 2019. ‘What is the Environmental Footprint of Christmas?’ OECD Environment Focus, 24/12/19. https://oecd-environment-focus.blog/2019/12/24/what-is-the-environmental-footprint-of-christmas/
2. Crae, R, 2020. ‘Coronavirus: Edinburgh city centre Christmas and Hogmanay celebrations cancelled’. The Sunday Post, 1/10/20. https://www.sundaypost.com/fp/coronavirus-edinburgh-city-centre-christmas-and-hogmanay-celebrations-cancelled/
1. Associated Press, 2020. ‘Europe’s famed Christmas markets latest tradition canceled by coronavirus’. Boston Herald, 29/11/20. https://www.bostonherald.com/2020/11/29/europes-famed-christmas-markets-latest-tradition-canceled-by-coronavirus/
2. Golan, A, 2020. ‘Israel weighing COVID-19 restrictions for Hanukkah, says Health Ministry chief’. Jewish News Syndicate, 30/11/20. https://www.jns.org/israel-weighing-covid-19-restrictions-for-hanukkah-says-health-ministry-chief/
3. Holt-Lunstad, 2020. ‘The Double Pandemic Of Social Isolation And COVID-19: Cross-Sector Policy Must Address Both.’ Health Affairs, 22/6/20. https://www.healthaffairs.org/do/10.1377/hblog20200609.53823
4. National Weather Service (USA), 2019. “The Seasons, The Equinox, and the Solstices”. https://www.weather.gov/cle/seasons
5. Ashwanden, C, 2019. ‘The Solstice and Regeneration: How can we Encourage Regeneration in Our Lives?’ Permaculture News, 21/12/19. https://www.permaculturenews.org/2019/12/21/the-solstice-and-regeneration/
6. Frazer, Sir J, 1890 (2002). The Golden Bough. Dover Publications: Mineaola, USA
7. Sinn, S, 2011. “Tinne (Holly)”. The Living Library Blog, 22/6/11. https://livinglibraryblog.com/holly-tinne/
8. Jung, C. G., & Franz, M.-L. V, 1964. Man and His Symbols. Doubleday: Garden City, N.Y, USA.
9. Ashwanden, C, 2019. ‘Permaculture and Death – part 1: A Reflection on Natural Cycles’. Permaculture News, 4/11/19. https://www.permaculturenews.org/2019/11/04/permaculture-and-death-part-1-halloween-and-permaculture/
10. Witchwood, L, 2014. ‘Walking Yule in Silence’. Magick Kitchen, 2014. http://www.themagickkitchen.com/walking-yule-silence/
11. Discover Chartres, 2020. ‘Chartres Labyrinth – the Largest Ever Built in France’. https://www.discover-chartres.com/chartres-labyrinth.html
12. Plett, H, 2015. ‘How to Make a Finger Labyrinth.’ Heather Plett, 17/1/15. https://heatherplett.com/2015/01/make-finger-labyrinth-also-piece-art/
13. Ashwanden, C, 2020. ‘Permaculture and Death part 3: Holistic Practices for those Left Behind’. Permaculture News, 2/3/20. https://www.permaculturenews.org/2020/03/02/permaculture-and-death-part-3/
14. Mabilog, P, 2016. ‘What’s the tradition behind gift-giving at Christmas?’ Christian Today, 22/12/16. https://www.christiantoday.com/article/whats-the-history-behind-gift-giving-on-christmas/103233.htm
15. LeGuin, U.K, 1974. The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia. Harper & Row: New York City, USA.
16. Wait, R; Advisor UK, 2020. ‘Dreaming Of A Green Christmas? 15 Ways To Go Eco-Friendly This Yuletide.’ Forbes, 26/10/20. https://www.forbes.com/sites/advisoruk/2020/10/26/dreaming-of-a-green-christmas-15-ways-to-go-eco-friendly-this-yuletide/?sh=5dda16aa727f
17. Mazzoni, A, 2020. ‘The loneliness pandemic: Families are stopped from visiting their elderly relatives and older people are banned from taking part in social activities.’ Daily Mail Australia, 18/3/20. https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-8123983/Families-stopped-visiting-elderly-relatives-coronavirus-measures.html