Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Winter Solstice- Why we celebrate in the dark

While volunteering in the library at Aiden's school today, his teacher asked about our Winter Solstice celebrations (it's the time of year to talk about how people all over the world celebrate different holidays and how familiar holidays have very different customs in other locations). I told her I'd written pretty extensively on it, and I have, but as I was looking for the link to email to her, I realized something - I haven't written much about why we celebrate and how that translates in to how we celebrate. Oops. Sometimes, I surprise myself with my ability to overlook the obvious. Of course, if I didn't I'd be bored frequently.

The winter solstice marks the end of the dark half of the year.  On the longest night of the year, we light candles and fires, feast and make merry to welcome back the light and to fill the darkness.  For some traditions, this is the night on which the Sun god dies and on the next morning, he is reborn, new and whole and young from his mother goddess. You can also look at this as the midpoint in Persephone's time with her husband in the underworld, there are many stories, and each of them highlights an aspect of the season. The entire point of the celebration is to acknowledge and embrace the idea that no darkness, inside or outside, can last forever.  As the days pass, the sun will grow stronger and the light will be present more often.

Our holiday begins with decorating. It's become customary for us to remove the autumn decorations, to offer the pumpkins and corn to the animals and spirits outside (the neighborhood crows love us).  We then bring out the winter decorations and hang them.  I know many other Pagans who stick with green and red, but I use white, blues and silver. New candles are placed in all of the many candle holders in preparation for the the night.  We clean the house, rearrange the furniture, and focus on making the family spaces more welcoming.  Our pentacle wreath gets redecorated, as it does every season.  If I have time for it, this is also a good time for us to clear out some of the old, outgrown or unneeded items from drawers and closets.  It makes space for new ideas, new experiences, and it loosens the hold the past has on us, which are all important to our mental and spiritual health.

We also spend time with our loved ones during the solstice because the dark and cold are more bearable with good company.  This is a time to warm our hearts and fill our bellies, and for modern people, it is a time to remember that we are fortunately to be able to do this. Throughout time and around the world, many go without food, and it is a blessing to be able to share a meal with loved ones.  Winter, for many, has been traditionally a time without plenty, as the harvest has finished and the spring foraging and planting hasn't yet begun (of course, living in California so close to the Central Valley makes it very easy to forget this).  A feast is an act of both hope and defiance when the future seems uncertain.

Gift giving is another part of our celebration. Gifts between people is a time honored tradition that reminds us in a tangible way that we have obligations and connections to the people around us.  For our family, we begin opening gifts on Winter Solstice, and those are often books or seasonal clothing (my sons actually like getting sweaters or new warm pajamas, so it's not as boring as it sounds) or books (I firmly believe that reading lights fires in our hearts and minds).  Each night until Christmas, which our extended families celebrate, the boys open a gift.  As we are trying to move away from excessive consumerism, we try to focus on gifts that are centered around experiences, rather than just things- like Lego's, they will use to create their own realities, books, music, art supplies, experiments, or memberships to museums or trips.  Santa, who is a magical and generous figure makes a delivery, but he is not a central character in our narrative.

I also drag my children out to experience the night sky and the dawn after the solstice.  We have been known to drive away from the lights of towns and spend some time appreciating how dark the sky can be and how beautiful the stars are.  This is, of course, if the weather is reasonable.  This is also a great time to watch the moon, as it appears closer and brighter in the winter.

Some years, we follow this celebration with a trip to Nevada to see my husband's relatives, but we won't be doing that this year.  When it's all done, we start watching for signs of spring and rejoicing in the longer days.  Slowly, winter decorations give way to spring. I start seedlings in the kitchen window.  

1 comment:

  1. All that sounds so wonderful. I like the idea of giving gifts that require the use of imagination.


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