Since the dawn of religion and the belief in gods and goddesses, the winter solstice has been celebrated by civilizations around the world. Each year around December 21st, those of us in the Northern Hemisphere witness the shortest day and longest night of the calendar year. After the solstice passes, our shortened days begin to grow longer again, and we’re able to begin planning our rebirth in the year ahead.
During the spread of Christianity, pagan winter solstice celebrations were masked with Christian ideals to help grow the monotheistic religion. This mishmash of pagan and Christian traditions has given us our Christmas trees, gift-giving, Yule logs, wreaths, and imagery filled with mistletoe and holly.
Pre-Christianity, the winter solstice was a time to celebrate the year’s work. The harvest was over, the meat was literally on ice, and ale had been brewed. It was a time to kick back, enjoy your community’s company, and marvel at your hard work before the big chill.
Because the winter solstice was and still is so widely celebrated, there are an endless list of traditional and ancient cultural rituals one could partake in. However, the rituals we’ve provided below are practical and available for everyone to take part in.
1. Prepare a Yule log
According to Judy Ann Nock, author of The Provenance Press Guide to the Wiccan Year, the Yule log dates back to pagan Scandinavia. It represents the god of nature and, as it burns, the flames symbolize the returning rays of sun. It casts out the winter darkness and its ashes are used to fertilize the Earth come spring. And, as is tradition, a piece of Yule log is kept to kindle the next year’s winter solstice fire.
Nock says that traditional Yule logs came from oak, birch, or fruit trees to symbolize rebirth and fertility. However, if you are not in an area where these species grow naturally, any type of wood will work.
It’s crucial to pick out your Yule log well before the solstice occurs. Your log will need time to dry, especially if it is taken from a live tree (and if it is, make sure you ask the tree’s permission before you cut a branch from it). Dead wood from the forest floor or your local Christmas tree seller will work best. Once you procure your Yule log, treat it respectfully. It is now a sacred tool to welcome in the new year.
Drill three to eight holes into the log, big enough to fit taper candles. Insert your taper candles and decorate your Yule log with evergreen clippings, holly, mistletoe, or ivy. Light your Yule log on the winter solstice and enjoy a feast in its presence. Once the candles have burned down, place your Yule log in your hearth or wood stove and let it burn, or save it for next year.
2. Set up or refresh your altar space.
Even if you do not consider yourself a practicing witch, pagan, or follower of any defined religion, creating an altar can greatly enhance motivation and propel you toward your goals. Designate an area in your home to be the site where you can manifest your dreams—a small table, a windowsill, or even a shelf works great. Decorate this space with objects and images that you love and that inspire you.
In celebration of the Winter Solstice, you may want to direct your altar toward a rebirth of sorts. Perhaps in the new year you want to empower yourself and get better at self-love. Or maybe you want to tap into your creative energy more in 2019. Decorate your altar accordingly and then spend time sitting at your altar, picturing your success. Here is where you can also let go of things that didn’t work well for you this year. Write wishes on pieces of paper and burn them in a candle flame with the intention to gain or let go within the coming year.
You can manifest your own destiny, and having an altar to keep you on track will ensure your dreams come true.
3. Brew a pot of Glögg.
Like the Yule log, sipping Glögg—a version of mulled wine—around Christmastime is a Scandinavian tradition. Said to date back to Viking times, Glögg is a powerful yet comforting alcoholic beverage that will warm your guests and get the good times flowing.
To make a traditional Glögg (this is the author’s family recipe), you’ll need: 12 almonds, 12 cardamom seeds, 6 whole cloves, 1 cinnamon stick, 1/3 package of seedless raisins, an orange peel, 1 quart of port wine, 1 cup sugar, and 1/5 bottle rye or bourbon. Be warned—this stuff is powerful.
Place your spices into a square of cheesecloth and tie into a pouch. Place your spice pouch into a medium-sized pot. Add raisins and orange peel and cover with water. Put the lid on the pot and bring to a boil. Boil until all the ingredients are soft. Then, add port wine and sugar. Bring back to a boil and quickly remove from heat. Add the whiskey and stir. Strain the mixture and reheat before serving, but do not boil (you don’t want to burn off the alcohol).
Mulled wine dates back to ancient Egypt, therefore there are a gazillion recipes available online. Ina Garten has a great mulled wine recipe that’s fairly simple.
4. Decorate and bless your holiday tree.
The tradition of bringing in and decorating an evergreen tree dates back to pre-Christian times. Ancient Egyptians, who celebrated the god Ra during the solstice, would decorate their homes with palm rushes to symbolize Ra’s recovery from sickness. Early Romans celebrated Saturnalia during the solstice, a festival dedicated to Saturn, the god of agriculture. They, alongside the ancient Celt Druids and Vikings, all brought evergreen boughs into the home to symbolize life.
It wasn’t until the 16th century that the Germans adopted the tree tradition into Christianity, however, the Christmas tree didn’t catch on elsewhere until the late 19th century, when Queen Victoria and her Prince Albert made the Christmas tree fashionable.
Because the evergreen tree is rooted in pagan solstice tradition, it’s a valuable vehicle for modern pagans to reconnect with their ancestors. On the solstice, make your own ornaments like popcorn garlands, orange pomander balls, salt dough stars, and painted pinecones. Put intention into each DIY ornament, blessing it with positive thoughts and wishes for the year ahead.
Gather friends and family together to create these decorations and put them on the tree. Share memories from past solstices or holiday seasons.
5. Tap into your inner Sagittarius and Capricorn.
Because the actual date of the winter solstice varies from year to year, the solstice occurs on the cusp between Sagittarius and Capricorn. It’s on the solstice that we should look to these two astrological signs for inspiration and apply their characteristics to our own lives.
Sagittarius, a fire sign, carries with it masculine energy, positivity, and honor. Those born under the Sagittarius sign may be thrillseekers and/or often engage in philosophical thought or discussion. Represented by a centaur, Sagittarius is also a sign that contemplates nature versus man, wildness versus evolution.
Capricorn, on the other hand, is much more reserved and willing to go with the flow. Capricorns often rely on instinct to make their decisions and know when to act or when to stay put. It’s this wisdom and intuition that allows Capricorns, represented by a half-goat, half-fish creature, to stay afloat in any situation.
Apply both signs’ traits to a current situation that may be weighing on your mind. As a Capricorn would, approach the situation with logic and listen to your gut. If the situation is something outside of your comfort zone, but you know it will be good for you, then do as Sagittarius would and go for it.
Celebrating the winter solstice is best done with friends and family, so make plans with your loved ones and surround yourself with warmth and love. ‘Tis the holiday season, after all.