Winter Solstice Magic: Darkness and Light

Nightly I stand outside my little cottage in the darkness, wearing my navy blue, Carmel tourist hoodie and a favorite scarf wrapped around my neck. Listening. Feeling.

Rumbling in the distance, the voice of the sea echoes from a half mile away. Like a broken pearl, the waxing moon is held in the sky by the dark, lacy fingers of the Grandmother, the venerable Monterey cypress who stands guard at the front gate. Tonight is a clear, inky darkness lit only by a few twinkling stars, and I stand silently, breathing the crisp air deep into my lungs. Bare soles upon the cool, damp earth. Appreciating the chilly moment and the curious, spiraling journey of life, I savor being fully alive as another year-end holiday season enfolds us.

The approaching solstice marks the official beginning of winter in the northern hemisphere, yet the shortest day and the longest night of the year feels to me like a moment of new beginnings. Yes, darkness has reached its zenith—rich, full, and fecund—but somehow this turning point seems a curiously auspicious opportunity to scatter the seeds of intention. Now is the time for dreams related to the fire of longing, a quietly generative energy that builds in the long, cold nights of the winter ahead; dreams tended by the hearth and in the heart, one and the same.

As it does for me each year, the winter solstice feels like embracing a moment of conception and birth—a sense of energy held in potential rather than form, not yet fully manifested. A silent, full pause between breaths.  

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Stonehenge at sunrise

In journal posts of years past, I have shared that I celebrate Winter Solstice as my chosen holiday rather than Christmas. Wherever our painted gypsy wagon may be parked, typically I host a feast, gathering friends to our festively decorated table to savor and celebrate. When we sit down to the meal, crystal wineglasses glittering by candlelight, to my assembled guests I usually make a little speech wherein I outline the pagan origins of the solstice, the Roman celebrations of Saturnalia and Sol Invictus, and how Pope Julian 1 moved the “Christ mass” forward from spring 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 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 darkness rather than pushing it away as something undesirable (or rejoice in its demise). 

“… 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.” (excerpted from “The Bones and Breath)

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

I’m keeping the holidays especially mellow and calmful this year, and Solstice will be dinner just for three of us with a special duck, a bottle of top quality Champagne, and one of my signature desserts. No grand feast or revelry. For although I’m feeling festive and cheerful in my own way (read: typically subdued), I’m also savoring being quiet and reflective. 

As December draws to its close, I find myself navigating a period of endings, transitions and new beginnings. A laying to rest of certain projects, relationships, troubles, and dreams. Alongside this, new seeds are quietly germinating—gathering energy, not yet quite in physical form. Ancestors feel near at hand. Ghosts and spirits, too. The slow turning inward that began in autumn at the equinox, like a bountiful harvest and then putting the garden to bed that it can lay fallow for the winter, has paused; in the deep darkness of the solstice, I stand at a hushed sunrise of simple celebration.

Following the wheel of the year, it feels time to move toward the winter North rather than the autumnal West.

Wrapped in the cool night air, I linger at the red front door of the cottage, my fingers caressing the holiday wreath that adorns it, leaning in close to inhale the uplifting evergreen aromatherapy. Scent-ual goodness and a fragrant blessing each time I enter or exit the house. I stopped buying cut Christmas trees years ago, preferring to have a small, potted, living thing that can later be planted—even if sometimes it is something less traditional, like a lemon tree or a rosemary bush. The wreath, however, I still embrace; made from cast off boughs and trimmings, woven with pine cones and purple blue juniper berries, it continues the ancient tradition of being a welcoming symbol, utilizing evergreens that symbolize surviving through the long winter. 

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Ancient symbol of welcome and life’s renewal

Standing outside my little house, listening to the near distant sea and the soft voice of wind in the trees, the air smells alluringly of fragrant woodsmoke from a neighbor’s chimney. The curtains of the front windows are aglow with the golden light of the tall beeswax tapers indoors on the table, and in the chill of darkness their flickering warmth seems especially welcome. Tomorrow’s solstice will be the longest night of the year, and I will surely once again be standing here outdoors, listening… barefoot, casting prayers, and singing in low notes to the moon.

Darkness carries its own power and magic. Even personal shadows, like disappointment, grief and despair, have a strange grace to offer if we can find and welcome it. And sometimes—often— it is only when we’re broken open, or have let go of something we cherished or clung to, that the real gifts can emerge. 

Certainly our troubles and woes don’t miraculously vanish at the holidays; for many people, the weight and darkness of personal shadows seems heavier and deeper amid the twinkling lights of a festive season. Yet as I offered in my post last week, despite the consumerism and chaos, there is still an underlying soul at the holidays that remains the heart of goodness. Grace abounds, even in darkness—both personal and celestial.  

A chipped moon waxes in the charcoal heavens. The light returns to warm both soul and stone. The slow descent of these past months reaches its nadir, and just as with that brief pause between exhale and inhale, in the moment of silence, something shifts. That is how I think of the December solstice: an invisible spark in the deepest darkness, a moment of magic when something quietly ignites and is born within us, long before any sign of gestation or the quickening of Spring arrives. Here on the blackest, longest night is when it happens, and now is the moment to acknowledge it.

The spark of life seeds the womb of creation. A veiled moment of beginnings, a breath of new life. Gifts of darkness and of light. For untold ages, the Winter Solstice offered a moment of inspiration and hope that night would not hold sway over the frozen land forever, and that warmth, sun, and abundance would return. 

Soul Artists know that we always have a bounty of blessings to be grateful for, even amidst our seeming troubles or shadows. Simple treasures abound through the day in each season, given freely to those who are paying attention through open senses and an unshuttered heart. The ordinary sacred exists everywhere, inviting us to appreciate and savor the life we are given. And while any time of year is the right time to unfasten our hearts, the holidays seem to be a special opportunity to do so, a period when we are met more freely by others doing the same.

Christmas looms imminent, full of cheer—purchased or genuine. The darkness reaches its depths and begins a slow retreat, even as Earth tilts on her axis and we head into the stark fullness of winter.  Surely we can all find something to celebrate. There is no doubt that a candle shines brightest in the shadows, and yet darkness offers its own gifts, too often missed by those who chase only illumination.

Come darkness, come light. As the ancients did, may we celebrate the magic of them both.

Blessed be.

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