Many years ago I read in the Oxford Companion to the Year that December 21 was when the Romans celebrated Angerona, the goddess who advocates for silence with her finger to her lips. The connection between the shortest day of the year and silence intrigued me and led me to develop my favorite Solstice ritual: I spend the day in silence and without using any electricity. I don’t watch television or listen to the radio or work on my computer. I don’t turn on the lights. I don’t answer my phone. At dusk, I go for a long walk in the park near my home. At night, I light candles, take a bubble bath, and go to bed early. I love the way this practice places me inside a delicious pool of quiet and serenity, allowing me to move more slowly and to listen to my own thoughts and feelings more closely. My other Winter Solstice tradition is to host a Solstice party on the Sunday closest to Solstice.
Over the years we have developed rituals around the Solstice party that our guests have come to expect. I make several kinds of traditional Christmas cookies in the weeks leading up to the party: a circle of shortbread (scored and fluted to look like a sun), Zimtsterne (German cinnamon cookies), stag’s antlers (flavored with cardamom), and kourabiedes (Greek cookies in the shape of little balls, which are rolled in powdered sugar and rose water and have a clove in the center). We always serve mulled apple cider from a slow cooker, with sliced apples and cinnamon sticks floating in it.
The party is scheduled from 6 to 9 to take advantage of the darkness. Around 7 PM, I turn off all the lights and blow out all the candles and ask everyone to stand for a few minutes in the dark and stillness and silence, reflecting on this turning point in the year. Then I talk about how St. Lucy’s Day is celebrated at the darkest time of the year in Scandinavia. We sing a version of the St. Lucy song, with words created by my daughter years ago:
Darkness is at its peak
But light is on its way
Springtime is coming soon
Winter will fade away
She brings light to our lives
She brings joy to our hearts
And out of the darkness, she appears—clothed in white and with a crown of candles burning on her head—and moves through the assembled crowd to light the Sun candle in the center of the Advent wreath, before disappearing as mysteriously as she arrived. Then all the guests gather around and light a votive candle from the Sun candle and make a wish for the new year while music plays in the background (we like “Here Comes the Sun,” “I Can See Clearly Now,” and “Let the Sun Shine”).
About an hour later, once all of the excitement of St. Lucy’s visit has subsided, we play Snapdragon, a Victorian Christmas game that I originally learned about from reading the Annotated Alice in Wonderland. I heat brandy in a pan on the stove until it’s just warm, then pour it into a shallow fireproof dish with a layer of raisins (or currants) at the bottom. Then I light the brandy. It flares up with flickering blue flames (like a Christmas pudding) and the guests take turns snatching burning raisins out of the brandy and popping them into their mouths. Although there is some warmth from the flames, no one has ever been burned: the real danger is getting the drippings all over your furniture or carpet, so be sure to play Snapdragon on a table covered with tinfoil or plastic.
It seems my two rituals represent the two contrasting impulses of winter holiday traditions. The impulse to hibernate, to go within, to cherish silence and stillness. And the impulse to gather with those close to you to drink and feast and sing and welcome the promise of the new year. I hope that your rituals and traditions help you celebrate this most magical time of the year.
Waverly Fitzgerald is a writer, teacher, and calendar priestess who has studied the lore of holidays and the secrets of time for decades. She shares her research and her thoughts on her Living in Season website and in her book, Slow Time. She is currently working on a series of essays about looking for nature in the city and blogs for the Seattle PI as the “Urban Naturalist.”