Winter solstice, the day “the sun stands still,” marks the longest night and shortest day of the year. It’s the day with the least amount of sunlight, and it’s the day when the North Pole is tilted farthest from the sun. For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, winter solstice falls on Dec. 21, the official start of winter.
Just the idea of so much darkness may make you want to stay inside and hibernate. But around the world, it’s a day crowds go outside to celebrate the “turning of the sun.” Many see the winter solstice as a day of rebirth or a celebration of light, as British author Susan Cooper captures in her poem “The Shortest Day”:
And 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.
For centuries, cultures around the globe have turned winter solstice into a time of celebration. Some use this time as a countdown to Christmas. Some bring their own light to the night, with fires, candles, and music. Others look to the day as the end of darkness and the start of the new year, when days will begin to have longer periods of sunlight.
If you’re looking to start a holiday tradition with your kids, the winter solstice has many teachable moments. Whether you want your kids to learn about the tilt of the sun, the theme of death and rebirth, or about how Stonehenge is aligned to the sunset on the winter solstice, this day offers a lot to explore.
Families and kids of all temperaments, interests, and abilities can share in the spirit. While the holidays can bring stressors for families with children on the autism spectrum, you can get the whole family involved in traditions that bring joy. Here are some ways you can make winter solstice traditions your own:
1. MEASURE THE DAYLIGHT
Winter solstice can be a reminder of our connection to the natural world. This is a good time to get in touch with nature’s cycles. The solstice doesn’t have to be a bleak reminder of darkness. Entire festivals revolve around celebrating it as the day the sun begins to return to us.
Take your kids outside and look at the sky. You don’t have to wait until the solstice to start recording sunset times. You can graph these and calculate the total sunlight for each day. When the graph is complete, you can ask your kids if they can see whether the days are getting longer or shorter. The winter solstice has about half the daylight as the summer solstice. Where does your city stack up in terms of hours of sunlight?
2. MAKE A WREATH
Some holiday traditions, such as hanging mistletoe and wreaths, have roots in pagan solstice rituals. Even if you aren’t religious, you can make a connection to nature.
Go outside and collect holly, ivy, evergreen boughs, and pinecones. These are meant to symbolize everlasting life, protection, and prosperity. You can use them to decorate a table or mantle or make a wreath. Your treasures could even become gifts for loved ones.
3. PREPARE A FEAST
One tradition that overlaps many cultures is to celebrate the solstice with a winter feast. Since the winter solstice falls at the end of the harvest season, families have long celebrated with an abundance of in-season food. Get the kids involved in the kitchen by letting them help prepare the family meal.
The recipes you prepare could become family traditions by themselves. Maybe it’s grandma’s mashed potatoes or aunt Rachel’s perfect pumpkin pie. Getting ready for the feast could become as much of a tradition as the meal itself.
4. DINE BY CANDLELIGHT
You can create your own festival of light. Bring some light into the darkest night of the year by lighting candles. You can make it a ritual by adding another step.
The extra step could be coming up with something to say as you light your candle. Get everyone involved by making resolutions and saying them out loud as you light a candle. Your intention could be something as simple as a wish you want to come true in the new year. Then try dining by candlelight.
5. BURN A YULE LOG
Lighting a “Yule log” fire is a Nordic tradition that goes back before medieval times. During the longest nights of the year, they would decorate and hoist a large log (sometimes a whole tree) into the room and feed a fire through the 12 days of Christmas. Those who helped were said to bring good luck into the new year. Your “Yuletide” tradition doesn’t have to involve dragging in an entire tree. Your tradition could be having a bonfire in the backyard or placing a log in your fireplace as you tell the Yule log story of days of yore.
6. CELEBRATE THE LIGHTS
If you’re ambitious and outdoorsy, you can take the opportunity to walk around and see the holiday lights decorating your area. Or you can pile in the car and go on a drive to see the best light displays in the city.
Embracing ways to celebrate light can bring joy to the season. A short car ride to a holiday display could be the right amount of time to feel festive, without feeling overwhelmed.
No matter how you celebrate the solstice, use it as a way to replace winter doldrums with a sense of renewal. The winter solstice may signify the day the sun rises lowest in the sky, but it’s also the day before we start growing closer to days of more light.
Looking for other fun holiday traditions and activities to try with your child? Learn about holiday gifts you can make with your child.