My wife Emma and I are big fans of the holiday season. Though neither one of us is particularly religious, just a touch spiritual in an earthy way, the festiveness of it all has great appeal. In fact, we don’t even exchange gifts so much as go in together to buy certain food treats that we don’t normally have. and we love to cook up a big feast. Occasionally, we wax poetically to one another about how that’s the “true” nature of it all.
About a week ago, we moved into our cabin after eighteen months of building it. The floors aren’t finished, and we’ve scarcely got a stick of furniture. But, it will be our first holiday in our new home after just missing out on Thanksgiving here, so despite the state of things, the drive to decorate is creeping in. We’ve got holly trees growing in the forest, boxwood clippings at our disposal, and plenty of evergreens from which to source pine cones. A freshly cut yule log is waiting on the porch amongst the haphazard stacks of floorboards.
A few years back, we made the switch to decorating almost exclusively with natural objects. It felt more in line with our values, both in that it didn’t create waste and it meant being in the forest, paying homage in some way to what nature provides. Since then, we’ve delved a little deeper into other ancient rituals associated with winter solstice, and we are excited to start leaning towards the natural world, rather than Christianity or consumerism, as our holiday compass.
Anyway, that’s got me thinking a lot about winter solstice, what it all means and why it is—without denominations or discounts—worth celebrating.
The Basic Breakdown
For us permaculturalists, it behooves us to have a basic understanding of what is going on in the natural world. Even general knowledge of certain things can alter the way we design or approach a task. While most of us have some rough notion of what the solstices and equinoxes are, it’s worth breaking it down into the basic parts.
In short, the winter solstice occurs on the shortest day of the year and has traditionally marked the first day of winter, though that doesn’t jive with the modern meteorological calendar, based on temperature. “Solstice” crudely translates to “sun stands still”, referencing that during this time the sun seems to rise and set in the same place due to its low arc across the sky. In this way, winter solstice is based on the position of the earth as opposed to meteorological temperature trends.
Less technically, the moment of solstice is the moment when the length of daylight annually shifts from decreasing daily to increasing daily. That happens when the sun reaches the Tropic of Capricorn (in the northern hemisphere) or the Tropic of Cancer (in the southern hemisphere). This occurs between December 20-23 and June 20-23, respectively. The date is not exact because it works on an astronomical calendar.
Interesting side notes:
- Despite the winter solstice being the shortest day/longest night, this day doesn’t represent the earliest sunset. Human timekeeping and natural cycles don’t quite match such that the earliest sunset is usually two or three weeks prior to the winter solstice. And, it will differ depending on latitude.
- The winter solstice also is rarely the coldest day of the year. It occurs near the beginning of winter when landmasses (and masses of water) are still holding some of the energy from warmer months. The coldest times generally come a month or two later when the warmth has further subsided.
Ancient Solstice Sites & Rituals
While we (or I, to be franker about it) can now provide a rather frumpy explanation of what the winter solstice is, recognising that something significant is happening is really nothing new. This special time has been acknowledged for thousands of years, dating back to at least 10,000 BCE. Sites around the world have been built to correspond with the sun’s positioning on the solstices and equinoxes.
- Stonehenge (England)
- Machu Picchu (Peru)
- Chaco Canyon (USA)
- Karnak Temple (Egypt)
- Newgrange (Ireland)
- Chichen Itza (Mexico)
- Mnajdra Temples (Malta)
Historically, the solstice has played an important role in culture throughout the globe, and even today, celebrations and traditions play out year after year. While each culture has its own spin on what to do and what to eat, there are some thematic ties that are worth noting. Light/fire and feasting show up ubiquitously, and greenery is another common feature, particularly in western nations. Here are some of the most famous winter solstice celebrations.
- Dong Zai Festival (China)
- Lucia’s Day & Yule (Scandinavia)
- Lohri (India)
- Yalda Night (Iran)
- Tōji traditions (Japan)
- Soyal (USA – Native Americans: Hopi)
- Inti Raymi (Peru)
Undoubtedly, the focus of fire/light and food are linked to the timing of winter solstice, marking the onset of the coldest, darkest months of the year, as well as the end of harvest season. Also common amongst celebratory themes were re-birth of the sun, noting that that daylight hours are now on the upswing until the summer solstice, and cleansing as the yearly cycle comes to an end. Protection from spirits during the dark weeks ahead is another repeated motif.
Acknowledging Winter Solstice
Whatever the longstanding traditions are, wherever ancient civilisations have built temples skewed by the solstice, we ultimately would like to find ways to bring the celebration into our new home and our permaculture practice. In that vein, we are looking for how this natural cycle might affect the way we live day-to-day as well as the approach we might take to this time of year. So…
- The beauty of bringing in boughs of holly, pine cones, and assorted ever-greenery is that our house gets a burst of life in an otherwise characteristically drab winter season. Winter has the tendency to feel dark and grey, so having garland and fresh pine scents about the house lifts our spirits when they might most need it. In this way, acknowledging the winter solstice has improved our mental state for the months to come. We often keep those decorations—more natural, less Santa—around until spring.
- Winter Solstice also signals a time for more sleep, a time to embrace the space to rest and recuperate after the year’s work. We already feel it in our sleep cycles, the sun setting at 5:30-ish and us trying to hold out until 7:30-8:00 before climbing into bed. In the winter, I’m often awake and raring to go before 5:00. But, it makes sense to use the solar clock nature provides, allowing us to gradually build up our workdays with the building of daylight.
- As the cold and dark push us indoors, perhaps a little more than we like at times, winter solstice is also a good starting point for introspection. We can consider the success of the year gone by. We can consider the goals for the year to come. We can take a moment to dabble in how we feel about the state of things and how that might be improved or maintained. In the solstice, we can have annual rebirth of intention.
- On a more practical level, the arc of the sun from the solstice is a great reminder to design with nature in mind. Our new house is wonderfully oriented to let in the sun from fall to spring, when the passive heating and extra light will do us some good. In the summer, the eaves keep direct sunlight at bay. Each day, it pays to be observant of the sun’s path and what it means to our house, homestead, breakfast, dinner, and day.
This year gone by has been one of great change for us, one in which we have toiled to build our home and set the stage for a lifestyle we’ve been chasing for years. This year ahead is one in which our feet will finally plant firmly on the earth where we plan to live out our days, planting the seeds and seedlings that will see us through years to come. This holiday season we hope to start some new traditions that keep both of these things in perspective and allow us to appreciate our little niche in the world, one we are so fortunate to have. That’s not a bad way to spend the holidays, especially if spiked hot chocolate and roasted butternut squash is involved.