Wednesday, December 9, 2020

The Return of the Light - Celebrating The Winter Solstice
Updated Post With New Ways To Celebrate!


"The winter solstice has always been special to me as a barren darkness that gives birth to a verdant future beyond imagination, a time of pain and withdrawal that produces something joyfully inconceivable, like a monarch butterfly masterfully extracting itself from the confines of its cocoon, 
bursting forth into unexpected glory.

 - GARY ZUKAV

The Winter Solstice will arrive at 8:30 a.m. (EST) on Monday, December 21 this year. In astronomical terms, it is the single moment when the sun reaches its southern most point in the sky (or its northern most if you live in the southern hemisphere).The world solstice comes from two Latin words: sol meaning "sun" and sistere meaning "to stand still" because it appeared as though the sun and moon had stopped moving across the sky. it means, literally,"sun stands still", and for three days at this time the sun appears to rise and set in the same southeasterly position on the horizon before beginning its gradual incline north once more. It's a spiritual event as much as an astronomical one, heralding the rebirth of the year and the return of the sun.

It is generally considered to be the start of winter, and the three winter months are reckoned as December, January and February. However, the "solar winter" - the period with the fewest hours of daylight and the weakest sunlight - stretches from November 1 to February 1 with the solstice marking Midwinter. It is the shortest day and the longest night of the year, meaning there are less hours of daylight and more hours of darkness on this day than on any other. This is in contrast, of course, with the summer solstice when there are more hours of daylight and less hours of darkness, the longest day of the year. But while it is the shortest day of the year, it is not the date of either the earliest sunset or the latest sunrise. The earliest sunset occurs around Little Yule or Santa Lucia Day, December 13, and latest sunrise around the New Year at the beginning of January. 

"This longest night of the year, followed by a renewal of the sun, demonstrates the cyclical order of the cosmos. In this way, celebrating the solstice can be a beautiful remembrance that our lives are part of a larger order, always changing, always renewing."

- Richard Heinberg, Celebrating the Solstice: Honoring the Earth’s Seasonal Rhythms through Festival and Ceremony

The Winter Solstice is a day that holds special meaning to me, if for no other reason than I LOVE winter! I've always said that autumn is my favorite, but to be honest, I think I love winter equally as well. Of course Christmas isn't far behind, and I hold it with fondness, but there is just something about this day  that is special to me.

We have observed the solstice over the years with various, simple celebrations, but as the girls have grown up and moved away, my celebrations have become much more personal in nature. Building upon the traditions of the past and adding a few new, "just for me" touches,  I have made the observance and celebration of this day, for the most part, very much my own. And so today, I thought I would take some time to share some of these traditions, both past and present, in the hopes that you might be inspired to indulge in your own celebrations. I will warn you now, this post is LONG, and it is only the beginning, there will be more! Did I mention this was one of my favorite days? But before I get into the how to celebrate, let's first begin with why, and if you will, a bit of a disclaimer.

Many years ago, for fear that the days might be becoming darker and that the the sun might never return, our ancestors began observing a number of customs that were designed to hopefully entice the sun from departing. And while there are some in christian circles (my circle) that would warn that such customs stem from pagan beliefs, I would argue that life itself has been washed in the bath of such beliefs (sin), since Eve first tasted the apple at Eden. Any ritual or tradition is made whole/holy simply by means of its focus and intent. My goal, based upon my personal belief in and relationship with Christ, is in a sense to "redeem" these customs by making Christ the ever present focus of my rituals and celebrations. But this is simply what seems right for me, you may, based upon your own personal beliefs adapt or omit any of these ideas as you see fit. My intent is neither to condone what some may seem as sinful, or to force my personal beliefs upon anyone. I would simply admonish (in love) that we each "work out our own salvation with fear and trembling before God." Mine is not to judge, and I would request that same grace be extended.  Ours is simply . . . to love. 

And now, on to the celebrations!

❅ A SOLSTICE HOUSE BLESSING 
(NEW THIS YEAR!)

Blessing the house is a traditional winter practice, filling the house and its inhabitants with spiritual light at the time of greatest darkness. I have adapted to the following blessing, originally recorded by Scottish folklorist Alexander Carmichael in 1900), to suit my personal beliefs and faith. Such blessings were used in the Scottish Highlands and Islands until the last century. Usually at the Winter Solstice. 

All hail, King Jesus, blessed is He,
The light of the world, who comes to dispel the darkness!
We ask for prosperity upon this dwelling, 
On all that you have heard and seen.
Bless this house and all that it contains, 
from rafter and stone and beam;
Deliver us to God from pall to cover,
Be the healing of men therein,
Be you in lasting possession of this house,
Bless us with health about this hearth,
And fill our hearts with joy!

❅ SOLSTICE BONFIRES

Many traditions include a bonfire, and this is one that we observed a few times over the years.  The idea is that the offering of warmth and light might appeal to the sun to warm the earth once again. One custom suggests that each person write down one habit they want to rid themselves of in the coming year and throw it into the bonfire.  If you decide to build a bonfire, it might be fun to make up some of the these spicy fire starters in the days before your celebration.  They will help to make your start up a little easier, and the fire starters themselves are quite lovely!

❅ THE SOLSTICE SPIRAL

The solstice spiral is one my favorite observances for this most special day, and is a celebration of the return of the light!  Solstice Spirals are popular in Waldorf schools, and you can read about that, here for context.

I do a much smaller table top version for my observance, using apples with white birthday candles, and in a pinch, I have also used tea lights and the presentation was just as lovely. I typically set it out on the kitchen table the night before so that it serves as a sweet reminder that we are cycling into a new season. This helps to build the anticipation, especially if there are children in the home. When the sun sets, I light the candles and allow them to burn for awhile, our own little celebration of the return of the sun.

❅ CALLING IN THE FOUR DIRECTIONS
(NEW THIS YEAR!)

This is a tradition that I just discovered this year. It is designed to help you feel a connection to the landscape around you, by taking time to look to the horizon at each of the four cardinal points: north, east, south and west. If you make a solstice spiral (above) and make it large enough, you could mark the cardinal points with the apple candles. For some, the four directions are associated with the four elements, north - earth, east - air, south - fire, and west - water. Taken as a whole, along with the fifth unseen element of spirit, you have all the ingredients of creation held in balance and in harmony.  Though I have not taken the time to do so yet, my goal is to choose four verses from scripture that seem appropriate, and to speak them aloud as I face each cardinal point, followed by a simple prayer asking God for His blessing upon creation. I am also considering having these songs ready on a playlist, and playing them as I pray and meditate.

- West

❅ A WINTER SOLSTICE WALK

This is a new tradition that I began last year and I plan to make it a regular part of my observance.  Thankfully we live in an area that plentiful with woods, and it makes for a lovely setting.  Last year I went early in afternoon to soak in the last rays of sunshine before the early darkness set in.  But this year I am considering taking it about thirty or forty five minutes before sunset.  I like the idea of returning to the warmth and shelter of home, lighting the candles on my solstice spiral, and then enjoying a festive meal, which I'll share more about below!  If you do decided to make your own solstice spiral, large or small, going on a walk might also serve the purpose of collecting some greenery.  And now, about my meal plans!

Traditionally, I always make a big pot of Grammy's Cabbage Soup.  Everyone in our family loves this hearty soup, which I really consider more of a stew, it's much heartier!  Although I was considering trying out this recipe, Crock Pot Cranberry Orange Pork Tenderloin, I think I might save it for the new year and stick with tradition. There is just something about keeping the menu simple that appeals to me, and I like the **homeyness** of a pot of stew.  I think I'll find a nice loaf of bread and serve it up with a cheese spread.  Once I have the particulars of my menu figured out, I'll post more about that.

But regardless of the main course, it wouldn't be the winter solstice without gingerbread and lemon sauce.  Gingerbread conjures memories from my childhood, when my grandmother would make it for me every time we visited!  I especially enjoy it during the long winter months, and traditionally make it for the time each season for the winter solstice.

❅ GINGERBREAD WITH LEMON SAUCE

Ginger is a favorite solstice and holiday spice, and gingerbread is a favorite from my childhood.  My grandmother made it for me often, and I always think of her when I make it today. And though I enjoy gingerbread throughout the year, I traditionally always make a loaf on the winter solstice.  Here's the recipe I have used for years.

Gingerbread
1 cup shortening
1 cup sugar
1 cup molasses
2 large eggs
3 cups all-purpose flour
1-1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1-1/2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 cup hot water

Lemon Sauce
1/2 cup sugar
2 teaspoons cornstarch
Dash salt
Dash nutmeg
1 cup half-and-half cream
2 large egg yolks, beaten
2 tablespoons butter
3 to 4 tablespoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest

Preheat oven to 350°.

Beat shortening, sugar, molasses and eggs until well blended. Combine next five ingredients; add to molasses mixture alternately with hot water.

Pour into a greased 13x9-in. baking pan. Bake until a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean, 35-40 minutes. Cool on a wire rack.

Meanwhile, for lemon sauce, combine first five ingredients in a small saucepan until smooth. Cook and stir over medium-high heat until thickened and bubbly. Reduce heat; cook and stir 2 minutes longer. Remove from heat.

Stir a small amount of hot filling into egg yolks; return all to pan, stirring constantly. Bring to a gentle boil; cook and stir 2 minutes longer. Remove from heat. Gently stir in butter, lemon juice and zest, increasing juice if needed to thin sauce. Serve with warm cake. Refrigerate leftover sauce.

And while spiced cider has been our traditional beverage of choice, this year I'm giving serious consideration to this recipe for winter lemonade!  I may do dual service and enjoy a cup of cider over tea earlier in the day.

Another observance I began last year is eating dinner by candlelight.  In todays world, illuminated by  gadgets and technology, and faces aglow with constant media all hours of the day and night, the winter solstice is an opportunity to pause and give tribute to the natural rhythms of life.

And NOW, I am going to close. As I have come across many addition lovely ideas for observing the solstice this year, my plan is to follow up with other ideas and expand upon a few I've already mentioned. Many of them, while destined for the solstice, need not be limited to observance on one day, and I think fitting for the beginning of the season and the new year!

Until then, my friends! 

"All blessings be upon you,
And all those you hold dear.
As the Yule log burns,
And friends gather near."

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