5 Ways to Recharge on the Winter Solstice
For the Northern Hemisphere, the winter solstice will occurs today — Tuesday, December 21 at 10:59 am EST. It marks the beginning of astronomical winter and is the day with the fewest hours of sunlight in the year. If that sounds a bit depressing, it doesn’t have to be! Instead of spending the day burrowing deep under the covers and wishing for spring, make this year’s winter solstice a celebration of the sun and its life-giving power.
What’s Winter Solstice?
The word solstice comes from the Latin word sol, which means “sun,” and the word sistere, which means “to stand still.” It got its name because for a few days before and after the solstice, the Sun’s path across the sky appears to freeze.
Because the Earth is tilted on its axis, on the day of the solstice one half of the planet is tilted away from the Sun and one half of the planet is tilted toward it. On the winter solstice, the Northern Hemisphere is tilted as far away from the Sun as possible, so that the Sun’s path across the sky is as low as it can be. That’s why ancient observers thought that the Sun was standing still.
To observe the solstice’s effect, stand outside at noon and look at your shadow. It’s the longest shadow that you’ll cast all year. If you repeat the process on the day of the summer solstice you’ll notice that you cast almost no shadow.
Winter Solstice Around the World
It’s now believed that Neolithic monuments like Stonehenge and Newgrange were used in winter solstice rituals by Stone Age people. Since then, cultures in every time and place have developed their own way of celebrating.
Saturnalia, like an early version of Coachella, was a week-long celebration held in ancient Rome. It took place in the days leading up to the winter solstice to honor Saturn, the god of agriculture. Then, there's Yule, when Norsemen in ancient Scandinavia celebrated the impending return of the Sun by bringing home large logs, setting one end on fire, and feasting until the log burned out, which could take up to 12 days. Today on St. Lucia’s Day, girls in Scandinavia wear white dresses with red sashes and wreaths of candles on their heads to symbolize the candles the early Christian martyr wore to bring hope and light as she traveled to visit imprisoned Christians. And on Shab-e Yalda, (which means “Night of Birth”), Iranians rejoice at the triumph of Mithra, the sun god, over darkness. Family and friends feast, read poetry, and make wishes for the coming year. Some stay awake all night to celebrate the rising sun.
Celebrate light and life
Don’t let the darkness get you down! Instead, use this opportunity to mark the occasion and let in the light. Here are five things you can do to make this winter solstice a time of warmth and connection with friends and family.
1. Decorate an outdoor winter solstice tree: Decorating a live outdoor tree can be a fun addition to, or substitute for, the traditional indoor Christmas tree. Adorn it with biodegradable, wildlife-friendly decorations like cranberry and popcorn garlands, birdseed ornaments, or peanut butter pine cones. Kids will love making the decorations, hanging them on the tree, and then watching as the birds, squirrels, and other creatures come by for a snack.
2. Walk a labyrinth by candle (or lantern) light: What’s a labyrinth, you ask? It’s a meandering path with only one way to reach the center and come back out. Unlike a maze, there are no blind alleys or dead ends. The path twists and turns back on itself many times before reaching the center. Humans have been making and walking labyrinths for thousands of years to create a space for meditation, prayer, and spiritual transformation. Labyrinths can be found at churches, hospitals, and parks, and many are open to the public. Check out the Labyrinth Society’s World-Wide Labyrinth Finder to locate one near you. There may even be a special solstice event happening! Carrying candles is traditional, as a symbolic representation of the sun and our hope for its return. If candles are a no-go where you live, a solar lantern is a safe and eco-friendly option.
3. Stay up all night: Take your cue from the Iranian festival of Shab-e Yalda and stay up to greet the sun on December 22. Invite some friends to an outdoor vigil and keep the fire, the food, and the merriment going all night. If you and your crew don’t have the stamina for an all-nighter, you can also set up tents and sleep in shifts. If you don’t have space for a fire, you can light a candle when it gets dark and blow it out when the sun comes up. Just make sure you don’t accidentally fall asleep with a fire or candle burning!
4. Let go of the old: If you’re burning a Yule log, hold a small ceremony as a way of letting go of the hurts and sorrows of the past year (we all have a few!). Write them down (wish paper is great for this), read them aloud or to yourself, and then throw them into the fire. You can do this as a group activity with close friends or family, or do it alone as a small gift to yourself.
Pro tip: Save a bit of your Yule log to start next year’s fire with.
5. Set new intentions: Ceremonies mark the end of one season, or one period of life, and the beginning of the next. Most of us have set New Year’s resolutions in the past, but did you know that only 10% of people actually stick to them? So if your motivation to go to the gym four times a week sputtered out in mid-February last year, you’re not alone. Instead, try using winter solstice as an opportunity to set some intentions for the year ahead. Unlike a resolution, an intention is less about “fixing” something that you’re doing wrong right now and more about inspiring you to live more fully. Because they are focused on the positive, intentions can be a powerful tool for change.
To set your intentions, take some uninterrupted quiet time with a pen and paper handy and ask yourself the following questions:
• If I knew I couldn’t fail, what would I be doing that I’m not doing now? Why is doing this important to me?
• What’s holding me back? What has prevented me from achieving this goal in the past?
• What do I need to help me achieve this goal?
• Are there people in my life currently who can help me achieve this goal? How can they help me? If there isn’t anyone, how can I find someone who will be able to support me?
Look back over what you have written and use the insights found there to create three solstice intentions. Sit with them for a few minutes, and then say each one out loud.
All it takes is a shift in perspective to make the shortest day of the year into a meaningful celebration of the present moment and our hopes for the future. As the poet Susan Cooper wrote:
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.