A Winter Solstice: A Holiday Ritual

The stockings are hung by the old stone chimney with care.

Holiday_hearthA pair of tall pillar candles glow warmly upon the hand-carved hearth, and a large poinsettia in front of the fireplace (soon to be moved for this evening’s fire) adds a bit of holiday cheer to my little poet’s cottage. Even if I had the space in my cozy writer’s retreat (and I most certainly don’t), you wouldn’t find a proper tree here—I swore off cut evergreen trees years ago. Instead, a miniature potted cypress, only a foot high and festooned with three special childhood ornaments, sits quaintly on the round table that doubles both as a dining area and my writing desk in an alcove of windows.

Here on the blustery central California coast, welcoming some winter storms that bring desperately needed rain, I’m feeling rather festive. I am decidedly under the influence of more cheer than I’ve managed to summon in the last few years of year-end holidays in Hawaii, where it never feels much like the classic Christmas—you know, the holly, ivy, and evergreen sort. No, it seems just like any other day in the subtropics. Apart from lights wrapped around the coconut palm trees, 25 December could be Easter or Fourth of July. And while I am somewhat reluctantly heading back to the islands for Christmas once more, I hope to carry a bit of the holiday spirit I’ve been feeling lately with me.

In my tiny kitchen, a pot of Moroccan-inspired chicken stew simmers quietly at the rear of the cooker, the enticing, faintly exotic notes of cumin and cinnamon wafting through the cottage. My mate is here, enjoying a much needed year-end break and a bit of mainland festive cheer. In the social spirit of the season, we’ve enjoyed a couple of nice dinners with friends, both new and old, the gatherings all pleasantly low key and tasteful in the very best way.

I bowed out of the present buying madness even longer ago than I gave up having a ‘proper’ holiday tree. I wanted to simplify Christmas, and I do not know a single person who needs more ‘stuff’. The few gifts that I now give to others tend to be experiences that can be shared: a pair of concert tickets; dinner at a nice restaurant; a gift certificate for a massage; something homemade and freshly baked; perhaps something for the kitchen, like a bottle of artisan olive oil. Or a well-crafted wine.

Sadly, Americans have largely tossed aside the notion of ‘less is more’ (we are not alone in this, but arguably the worst). The collective thinking seems to be that if we make Christmas even bigger and better, it will somehow recapture its magic and meaning. Certainly that’s what the retailers and advertisers want us to believe, but I beg to differ. In my opinion, keeping the holidays simpler enables them to mean more; decidedly it makes them far more enjoyable.

There seems to be a growing unhappiness with the ever-increasing commercialization of Christmas, a pervasive grumbling at holiday merchandise and decorations set out in October, but it’s not simply the advertisers’ or merchants fault—we are the ones rushing out to buy. The so-called “Black Friday” after Thanksgiving is a national embarrassment, I think—from stores opening at midnight, to the hordes of people lined up to stampede for bargains. The real magic of Christmas is not something that can be bought, folks. It is up to us as individuals to make decisions that simplify the holidays, reorganize our priorities, and keep the focus on something more meaningful than an escalation of mad spending, soulless parties, and more stuff. (Stands down from soapbox.)

I have wonderful Christmas memories from childhood. My mother was the very spirit of the season: ever generous, tasteful and classy, and very fond of wrapping presents and giving thoughtful, well-chosen gifts. When she died more than two decades ago, I stepped away from traditional Christmas completely. For several years, I simply couldn’t face it and I took an extended break, neither giving nor receiving presents. When I finally decided to rediscover and reinvent the holidays, I chose to celebrate Winter Solstice rather than Christmas proper. I couldn’t subscribe to any notion of celebrating Jesus’ birthday, but I could rejoice in the gradually lengthening days and return of the sun and warmth. A lovely present or two exchanged with my beloved felt nice, so I welcomed that, too.

Stepping out of the traditional, often crazy ‘holidaze’ and creating my own traditions has been tremendously freeing and empowering. I genuinely enjoy the holiday season now but mostly because it is entirely on my own terms. And as I said, I keep things simple.

Not that I needed any validation in creating my own rituals, but living abroad in different countries over the years, I realized that many traditions exist around Christmas, even down to the day gifts are given. Celebrating Joyeaux Noël, the French exchange presents clear through to Epiphany, 6 January (though Epiphany varies in different countries). In Spain, it’s Christmas Eve that’s the big night, followed later by Three Kings (Epiphany) as the grand culmination of two weeks of celebration. During our years in England, I enjoyed Boxing Day, 26 December, because it’s also a full holiday and nearly everything is shut (trains, included), which essentially makes Christmas into a two-day event. Rather than a brief 24 hours capping a long buying frenzy, Christmas gets extended into something that feels like a proper holiday. Boxing Day gets its own feast and parties, too, if slightly less grand than the Christmas ones.

In the northern hemisphere, the December solstice marks the longest night of the year, Winter-Solstice-Stonehengewhen darkness reaches its zenith. For years, I celebrated the winter solstice not only as a neo-pagan alternative to traditional Christmas but also to celebrate the light returning in a long, dark winter. Like our ancestors of old, the advent of days growing longer and the darkness slowly retreating seemed as worthy a thing to celebrate as anything else.

It was probably a decade ago that I started hosting an annual winter solstice feast at our house, an intimate sit-down dinner for friends and family, an all-out affair employing the old silver and good china. Wherever we roamed on the globe, at the festively decorated dinner table, to my assembled guests I would usually make a little speech about the pagan origins of the winter solstice, the Roman celebrations of Saturnalia and Sol Invictus, and how Pope Julian 1 moved the “Christ mass” to coincide with the largest pagan holiday of the year (arguably to gain more followers for Christianity).

Some years ago, reflecting my ongoing work with soul, around the time that we moved to England, I made a curious switch in the focus of my December solstice fête—celebrating the darkness itself. As the realm of soul and mystery, of transforming Underworld journeys, and the cocoon for symbolic death and rebirth, I decided to welcome and celebrate the darkness rather than pushing it away as something undesirable (or rejoice in its demise).

In The Bones and Breath, in the the opening of the chapter titled “Myth, Shadow and Light” I share:

“Most celebrations of the Winter Solstice focus upon the light returning but on this snowy night I’m choosing to celebrate the darkness, itself. Rather than something to be pushed away, I’m keen to welcome and embrace it. As an integral part of the Cosmos and psyche, the richness of the dark is both essential and misunderstood. Darkness is more than merely the absence of light; the dark holds its own unique energy, a powerful and palpable force in its own right. It guards something vital and mysterious. It is the hushed breath of lovers and the elemental force to tear them apart. Like either the Sacred Masculine or Divine Feminine, the dark embodies one half of creation. Truly, light loses its significance without the opposite to offer contrast and balance…”

“… Even as we fear or associate it with death, darkness is essential for creation, new life, and rebirth. A seed only sprouts when placed under a protective and nurturing layer of soil with the light blocked away. When the masculine spark seeds the feminine womb of creation—in the Unified Field, the energetic spheres of psyche and deep imagination, or in physical reproduction—it is in darkness that life and energy generates. Gestation is an essential time of growth; a time of sacred waiting before birth where profound change and transformation is occurring but cannot yet be seen. In such darkness, energies evolve into molecules and matter; cells divide and create new forms; seeds germinate and reach upwards towards their potential; bees build their sacred geometry of comb and turn the nectar and pollen of flowers into honey; and events draw mysteriously together to form pathways, destinies, and solar systems.”

The fecundity of darkness is elemental… and worthy of its own celebration, I say.

As an aside note, whilst living in England, no, I never joined the massive solstice gatherings at Stonehenge—upwards of twenty-thousand pagans and partygoers in attendance. Mobbed and mad is never my scene, and when you toss in being outdoors for a long night in freezing cold weather, well… no thank you. Far better to remain at home in our cozy countryside cottage and invite some friends over for a festive dinner and glasses of good bubbly.

Another aside note, I will confess to liking the clever sign: Axial tilt is the reason for the season. I fancy it for a t-shirt, personally.

Given our travels, I’m not hosting a solstice dinner this year. I will miss it in some ways, but I trust that there will be other times to gather with friends and family at an elegant table and share the bounty and blessings of a season. Feasting and generosity is certainly part of the art of life, one that I embrace and celebrate.

Christmas looms imminent, full of cheer, the chaos of rampant consumerism, and little twinkling lights. The darkness reaches its depths and begins a slow retreat, even as we head into the stark fullness of winter. Surely we can all find something to celebrate. A light shines brightest in the shadows, and yet the darkness offers its own gifts, too often missed by those who chase only the light.

Soul Artists know that we always have an abundance to be grateful for, even amidst our seeming troubles. Simple treasures abound through the day in any season, given freely to those who are paying attention through open senses and an unshuttered heart. While any time of year is the right time to unfasten our hearts, the holidays seem to be a special time to do so, a time when we are met more freely by others doing the same.

Gentle reader, here’s hoping that you find unique and special ways to savor these winter holidays in a manner that truly nourishes your soul. Unapologetically start a new tradition. Boldly bow out of whatever doesn’t feed your spirit. With whomever and however we choose to celebrate, may we all remember that it’s actually a season of gratitude and sharing. My wish is that we can all practice kindness and share the very best of what we have.

Whether in darkness or light, may you receive and welcome the mysterious grace and gifts of your journey.

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