Every year in late December, the sun sets early on the shortest day in the Northern hemisphere and as the last glimmer of ruddy light dissolves from the sky, the longest night of the year begins. On that night, millions of people all around the globe settle in for hours of celebration to mark the moment when the days will begin getting longer. This year, I decided to take part.
The Enduring Instinct to Observe the Winter Solstice
Folk religions, institutionalized religions, and secular societies around the world tend to observe the solstice in some way, whether they explicitly acknowledge it or not. Some anthropologists point to the profound influence of seasonality on our lives as the reason that solstice rituals have emerged independently all across the globe so many times.
What’s even more striking, though, is the way these rituals endure, even as the communities that uphold a particular tradition change profoundly. One explanation for that endurance is that the ritual itself, regardless of purpose or belief, serves an important purpose.
Researcher and activist Barbara Ehrenreich writes in Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy, “Humans are social animals, and rituals […] could be an expression of this sociality, a way of renewing the bonds that held a community together.”
Christmas is a prime example of how solstice celebrations can endure even as the society doing the celebrating undergoes profound changes. The traditions now associated with Christmas are a blend of Christian rites and pre-Christian rituals linked to solstice celebrations across Europe.
Even as Christianity profoundly changed the shape of European social structures, beliefs, and culture, the Christianizing communities held tight to solstice traditions. The interpretation of the rituals’ meaning changed from honoring the sun to honoring the Son but the basic shape of the celebration stayed the same.
Today, Christmas continues to be celebrated by secular and religious communities alike. Whether you’re honoring the sun, the Son, or just in it for the Christmas ham, millions of people gather together each year for a lot of eating, drinking, and gift-giving — three rituals that pop up frequently in solstice celebrations around the world.
The worldview of a neolithic human living in what is now France thousands of years ago and a French person living in that same place today may be profoundly different. But both would have shared the same urge to bring their loved ones close for feasting and revelry on the longest night of the year.
Christmas isn’t the only solstice celebration that endured. In southern Mexico, people gather every year at El Castillo, a circa 1,500+ year old Maya-Toltec ceremonial complex, to eat, drink, and dance through the longest night of the year. At dawn, the partiers watch as the sun rolls up the steps of the pyramid and into the sky.
In China, the Dongzhi festival marks the winter solstice which is thought to represent the moment that the yin energy of darkness will be overtaken by the yang energy of light. They welcome back the sun with rice wine, dumplings, rice balls, and other foods associated with Yang. Similar Dongzhi celebrations happen in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam.
In Northern Arizona, the Hopi dance, sing, tell stories, and give gifts to children to welcome the return of the sun. In Montana, the Blackfeet dance and play games all night long to create an atmosphere of joy and cheer for when the sun returns. In New Mexico, the Zuni Pueblo spend days in prayer, asking the gods to bless the whole world with abundant rains in the coming year.
Also in New Mexico, a group of agnostic and atheist astronomy buffs gather in a desert every year to eat, drink, dance, and observe the stars through a telescope. Though they aren’t religious, Polly White, one of the organizers of the event, explains that the annual tradition serves as a “yearly reminder that we should stay in tune with the natural rhythms of the planet…and celebrate and enjoy what each phase brings.”
How I Celebrated the Winter Solstice
This year, I wanted to hold a pagan-inspired winter solstice vigil. The core of my plan was simple: Gather enough food, friends, and booze to make it through the longest night of the year.
I also wanted to try out some pagan rituals and ceremonies but I avoided a strict itinerary because enforcing adherence to rigid procedure seemed to run counter to the idea of embracing the flow of natural cycles. After all, the solstice is a little different every year, as are the deep winter months it heralds. Why should a solstice ritual be held to more rigid standards of uniformity than the very astronomical event it’s meant to honor?
Instead of planning out the entire night myself, I invited each person to bring their own ideas so that the celebration that resulted was shaped by each of the people attending. By sheer luck, the attendees included a former wiccan, a Scottish man who’d grown up attending solstice celebrations with his pagan grandmother, and a woman learning to read Tarot — so we had no trouble coming up with witchy ways to hold vigil through the night.
The night before the solstice, our Scottish friend cooked enough squash and sweet potato soup to feed an army and an equally large batch of Stovies in case said army wanted a second course. We also had an eclectic mix of burritos, tacos, Christmas cookies, and assorted snacks in the event that another army showed up.
As recommended by a few sources I read, we wanted to gather as many found materials as we could for the night and avoid buying things as much as possible. By luck, my cousin had a dead tree in her backyard that had twice been struck by lightning that we were able to use as firewood.
Considered a potent talisman by many, lighting wood is thought to hold fire energy that can enhance the effect of just about any spell or ritual it’s included in. While it’s also thought to be dangerous to burn by virtue of all that supercharged fire energy, our group of solstice observers was a) largely agnostic on the magical potency thing and b) enchanted by the symbolism of welcoming back the light-bringer by burning lightning wood.
On the morning of the solstice, we went out to Oak Glen — a rural farming community nestled in the San Bernardino Mountains most well-known as an Autumn apple picking destination but great for quiet nature hikes in the off-season.
Foraging in the hills of Oak Glen yielded tons of oak leaves and bark, fir branches, pinecones, sycamore bark, yucca stalks, and other assorted local flora along with a little bit of holly and an even littler bit of mistletoe.
The mistletoe, holly, and pinecones were used to decorate our yule log. Now widely associated with Christmas, the yule log predates Christianity. In Northern Europe and Scandinavia, families would venture out into the woods each year to cut down the heartiest (usually oak) tree they could find. They would then decorate and burn it on the solstice.
Oak is associated with the oak king, who represents light and summer. The association with light also lends to oak’s reputation as the lord of truth. Burning the leaves in particular is thought to help you see through lies and avoid deception.
Evergreens — in our case, fir branches and pinecones — represent eternal life, inner strength, and the ability to overcome adversity. Holly, which is associated with the Holly king, who represents darkness and winter, was also a common yule log decoration. The association comes from its ability to produce berries in winter.
Mistletoe was equally popular because of its association with fertility and love. Hence the enduring tradition of kissing under the mistletoe — though, to complete the ritual and assure love or fertility, you’re supposed to burn the mistletoe after kissing under it.
At about 4:30 P.M., the sun began to set. We gathered in the east corner of the yard while the former Wiccan cast a circle with salt. Casting a circle is a widespread pagan practice, particularly in Europe where centuries of brutal oppression at the hands of Catholic leadership kept pagans from building the ceremonial complexes and temples they previously used for rituals.
Without permanent holy spaces to congregate in, pagans instead found ways to create their sacred space wherever they were. The circle is cast as large or small as needed to accommodate those who will use it. Sometimes (as in our case), it’s marked out in salt — whose absorbent properties are believed to create a barrier that absorbs negative energy, blocking it from entering the sacred space.
The practice emphasizes the socially constructed nature of sacred spaces, even ones with solid walls. A cathedral filled with devout Catholics is a holy place. That same cathedral filled with atheists is just a building with some neat art. Pagans have simply learned to embrace and incorporate that fluidity of space into their practice.
Once cast, she welcomed each of us into the circle. Inside, some began arranging kindling and sticks in the fire pit. Others set up the alter. Together, we talked about our plans for the night as we waited for the sun to finish setting.
After the last light of day disappeared beneath the horizon, we lit the fire along with the candles on the altar. While the fire got going, we took turns pouring cider onto the yule log.
According to some traditions, the yule log is meant to burn all night long — it was typically an entire tree or tree trunk in those cases — and dousing it in a spirit like cider or mulled wine was meant to bring it to life so that it could last through the long night. Our yule log was humble by comparison but we gave it the same honors as its more sizable ancestors.
With the yule log burning, the opening ceremony is officially over. After that, it’s just about keeping the fire and ourselves going until the sun rises again. While tending the fire, we kept ourselves occupied with other rituals and activities planned by the other attendees.
My cousin who is learning to read tarot practiced her craft on the other attendees throughout the night. There’s a widespread misconception that Tarot is used for fortune telling, but it’s actually more of a guided decision-making technique.
Many witches do believe in a magical significance to which cards come up when you ask the deck a question, but most strains of paganism reject deterministic views of fate. The future is not set in stone and human beings do have agency in their own lives. So, even for those who believe in the magic, what the deck is really doing is helping you explore different possibilities and the potential outcomes of the decisions available to you.
The winter solstice tarot spread my cousin used is a case in point. For each of the six cards in the spread, she asked one of the following questions:
- What is the essence of your inner shadow self?
- What can you learn from your shadow self?
- How can you bring your shadow self into the light?
- What lights you up from within?
- What new seeds are you planting?
- What do you need to release in order to create space for growth?
These questions are all more introspective than they are predictive. It’s not about asking the spirits or the universe to tell you what’s going to happen or what you should do. It’s about reflecting on what you want out of your future and what you need to do to get it.
There are many types and purposes of a burning ritual but the basic process involves intention, invocation, and release. In our case, each person took a piece of wood (from leftover ornament-making materials we had on hand) and thought about something they either wanted to release or wanted to manifest in the coming year. That moment of thought and reflection sets the intention for the ritual.
Once the intention was set, we each wrote ours down on the piece of wood. Some wrote a phrase or two representing the intention. Others wrote out longer incantations. That process of writing it on the wood is the invocation, a sort of transference of your intention from you into the object.
The final step is to release that intention into the world by burning it. Each person, when they were ready, put the piece of wood into the fire pit. The idea behind this is that fire is transformative. It turns wood into ash, dough into bread, changes the shape of metal and other materials. Likewise, many witches believe it transforms that object, charged with your intention, into energy that can help you realize that intention.
Even without the magic, it’s a helpful form of guided reflection. It was an opportunity to take a break from the drinking and revelry to quietly reflect on your goals for the year ahead.
The Long Night
By about 11:00 P.M., most participants had gone home and we were down to three people tending the fire. Soon after, we’d burned through the last of the lightning wood and began breaking apart an old rocking chair and dresser that my cousin was planning to get rid of. The winter solstice is all about releasing the old and welcoming the new, after all.
Our Scottish friend told us about the winter solstice celebrations he’d gone to as a child with his grandma. They were mostly a reason for the community to get together for food and dancing. But he also recalled an annual performance in which two people dressed up as the Holly king and Oak king to reenact the eternal battle between light and darkness that happens each year.
The legendary battle of the kings is a recurring cycle in which the Holly king succeeds in taking the throne during the summer solstice. Hence the shortening of the days and lengthening of the nights between June and December. On the winter solstice, the Oak king regains the throne and the days once again grow longer, overtaking the nights.
We shared stories; reflected on the solstice; tried to list every song about the sun we could think of; ran out of ideas and loosened the criteria to any song about sunshine or light; ate seconds and thirds of the soup and stovies; and brewed multiple batches of cider that gradually became more whiskey than anything else.
I learned that it’s hard to hold vigil until sunrise. I was overconfident since I’d done it unintentionally plenty of times. But those nights usually happen when you’re not paying attention. To intentionally sit watch, tend a fire, and wait for a sunrise (even with good company) takes an evergreen’s level of inner strength.
I made it to 4:00 A.M. Our Scottish friend made it to 5:00 A.M. Only my cousin, the former wiccan, persevered. For that last hour before sunrise, she paced around her backyard, stoked the embers enough to keep them alive, and studied the horizon closely for the first sign of light. When the sun finally peaked out above the horizon, she said, “welcome back,” and went to bed.
Even though I caved two hours early, it was fun and I would like to make it an annual tradition. While you’re mostly just trying to keep yourself awake through songs, stories, and spirits, there are also opportunities to reflect on your life, your relationship to the world around you, and any other topic that your mind gravitates toward.
When I attempt another vigil, I’ll definitely prepare better for the long night by increasing the firewood supply, decreasing the whiskey, and possibly holding the vigil out in the wilderness where the threat of noise complaints from neighbors won’t prevent us from scream-singing our spirits back up as needed.