Connecting to the Natural Rhythms of the Season: Winter Solstice
The Welcome Chance to Step Back from Holiday Noise and Quietly Reflect
So the shortest day came, and the year died,
And everywhere down the centuries of the snow-white world
Came people singing, dancing,
To drive the dark away.
They lighted candles in the winter trees;
They hung their homes with evergreen;
They burned beseeching fires all night long
To keep the year alive,
And when the new year’s sunshine blazed awake
They shouted, reveling.
Through all the frosty ages you can hear them
Echoing behind us – Listen!!
All the long echoes sing the same delight,
This shortest day,
As promise wakens in the sleeping land:
They carol, fest, give thanks,
And dearly love their friends,
And hope for peace.
And so do we, here, now,
This year and every year.
– The Shortest Day by Susan Cooper
Tomorrow, December 21, the shortest day of the year, will mark the turning from dark to an increase in sunlight. In the Northern Hemisphere, it is the coldest time of year and in the Southern, it marks the Summer Solstice. The traditions that recognize this passage seem to touch numerous cultures around the world and date back to ancient times in which the Mayan Indians, ancient Romans, Scandinavians and others celebrated. Today, there are winter solstice traditions celebrated in India, China, Japan, South Korea, England, Ireland, Canada, Guatemala and more. Years ago, my own neighborhood friends would gather on this day, say some words of gratefulness for the gift of light in our lives, and each person would contribute a stick or evergreen branch to the fire. This tradition has remained in my memory as one of the most sacred I have attended. All of the major world holidays involve an appreciation for light in the darkness as a previous article explored including Christmas, Hannukah and Kwanzaa.
This year, we have the opportunity to engage again in this ritual with dear friends and we are grateful to extend our family tradition to include more. This passage of dark to light offers so many opportunities for meaningful connection and reflection. Positive change begins inside ourselves and then, at home with our families. And as positive changemakers – which if you read and follow this, you are! – the solstice presents an opportunity, a moment to ask “how am I being the change I want to see in the world?” If I am to authentically embrace empathy and compassion for others – even and especially those who are challenging me or making destructive choices – I first must invest in letting go of judgement and that includes my own self-criticism – which can serve as the toughest critic of all. I can only do this if I remind myself that each person is coping with their pain in vastly different ways. And there is no one right path. What if, this Solstice, each person took the time to reflect on their voices of judgement for others and themselves and sent them into the fire to burn to ashes? If we did this in a wholehearted way, I wonder if we could rise like a phoenix and offer the compassion to ourselves and others that is so needed? I know the potential is there. How can you become a model for your family?
I so appreciate this day as a silent pause in the hustle of the holidays for introspection. If you, as I do, want to take this sacred moment to recognize how nature is offering us this opportunity for transformation, here are some ways to bring your family into the reflection with you. The following are themes that are emphasized across the world’s solstice traditions.
Theme: Letting Go, Forgiveness and Rebirth
In ancient Rome during the solstice, wars stopped, grudges were forgiven and slaves traded places with their masters. Today, the theme of forgiveness and rebirth is carried out in a diverse range of religious and cultural practices. The burning of wood to create light in the darkness also symbolizes that we can let go of old stories, judgements of ourselves and others, old wounds or poor choices and begin again. For children, it’s a critical lesson to learn that one choice does not determine who they are. There is always the light of a new day to offer a chance for forgiving the old and creating the new.
Question for our Family Dinner: Are people in your life disappointing you with their choices? Are there hurts that you are holding onto from the past? Have you disappointed yourself? How can you focus on letting go realizing that holding on only hurts yourself and keeps you imprisoned with those judgements? With the burning of a candle, can you imagine those disappointments burning into the ash, forgiven, and offering you a new chance?
Our connection to one another during this time is one of the most valuable. Ironically savoring our moments with our loved ones can get buried under a mound of anxiety, expectations and commitments. When it comes to focusing on our appreciation for one another during this passage from dark to light, we can be made aware, if we stop long enough to notice, that we are more alike than different. Numerous religions, nations, indigenous cultures and popular culture celebrate light with a wide variety of rituals and traditions. We can enter into our own celebrations, whatever our traditions may be, with the awareness that we are inter-connected and inter-dependent with one another and our environment. We can begin to explore the many other ways we are connected to one another regardless of how different we feel or seem at times.
Question for our Family Dinner: How have the ways in which we connect changed this year? What connections have been nourishing and satisfying that we want to keep or promote more of? What connecting have we left behind that we do not miss? What are ways that we are connected to people from places far from us in the world? What are the ways we are connected to people who are different from us or challenge us in our own community? If there have been disagreements among family and friends, how do we remain connected to those individuals?
Theme: Relationship of Light and Dark
Darkness has long been a symbol for emotional turmoil, sickness and violence in the world. The darkness seems to hold fear and danger but with the light of day, the perspective changes dramatically to one of hope and possibility. Moving from short, gray days to lighter, brighter days can help remind us that there is always another chance to make a better decision. There’s always an opportunity to be who we really aspire to being. Our actions can reflect our deepest values.
Question for our Family Dinner: Is there sadness, fear, disappointment or other darkness you want to leave behind? How can you let it go and begin again? What hopes do you have for the new year?
Theme: Gratefulness for the Natural World
It is humbling to step back and watch the changing of the seasons unfold. In ancient times, people feared that the lack of light would continue. They worried that if they did not revere the Sun God, it may move further away from their days. Take this moment in time to appreciate the sun, the moon, the trees, the birds and all of the natural world around us that profoundly influences all of our lives.
Question for our Family Dinner: What aspects of nature influence you regularly? What do you appreciate about the environment you encounter each day? How can you become more aware of the changes in nature around you? Have you gained more appreciation or a new view of the natural world during the pandemic?
Our family will be lighting a fire and sitting by it, noticing its brilliant light and feeling its warmth. As I toss my ceremonial evergreen bough on the fire, I’ll be considering what judgement stories I need to send into the fire with the bough. How can I place those kernels of anger, fear and disappointment into the flames to help myself truly let them go? There is a silent calm that comes over me when I light a candle or watch the flames rise in our fireplace. That calm gives me the space to reflect on the meaning of this time of year and connects me to the many individuals and cultures today and of generations past that have recognized this passage. May you find ways to let go of your outdated stories during this emergence from dark to light. May you allow it to transform you and create a bigger, wider space for compassion that can emerge from you fueled by more light in future days.
Adapted from an original post on December 14, 2014.