Snow blankets the silent ground, unbroken for miles around but for the occasional animal print etched into its glittery surface. A full moon rises above the horizon, casting evergreen shadows long and mystical. Inside the cozy log cabin we gather before a crackling fire. We sip eggnog made from the milk of our own cows or goats, who are at this very moment tucked warmly into their hay-filled barn. As we sip our nog and gaze upon our children playing peacefully with their wooden toys, we tell stories and sing Pagan holiday songs like Deck the Halls and the Pagan version of the Holly and the Ivy. Our night is lit only by beeswax candles made from our own hives and the fire. After a meal of winter stew and mead, we push back the furniture and gather for the family ritual. We call in the ancestors and the powers with whom we work, we raise energy and charge the Yule Log which is placed reverently on the fire, and we share cakes and wine or juice before ending our circle. Then we snuggle down in our cozy beds, sleeping soundly, and rise just before light to sing or drum up the sun. Then we share our handmade, cloth-wrapped gifts, and break our fast with sunny foods like buttery polenta, fresh farm eggs, and cinnamon tea. Then we spend the first day of winter snow shoeing through the silent and sparkly morning to bring gifts of seeds and dried fruit to the woodland creatures.
It could happen. If you live in the city, however, this fantasy may be a bit far fetched. How best does a busy family in the heart of a city celebrate the Longest Night and the return of the Sun?
Here are a few suggestions.
- Celebrate around the dinner table. Light lots of candles, turn off the electric lights, and share a meal of seasonal foods like potato leek soup and home baked bread (or at least locally made bread). Discuss what the light returning means in terms of playing outside, the promise of spring, and so on. Ask your children what they think about the return of longer daylight hours. Discuss what kinds of inner light they want to devote more time to in the coming year, and what that might look like.
- Make a Yule log. This might be as ornate as an actual log decorated with boughs and candles (drill holes in the top of the log or attach candles with wax or hot glue), or as simple as sticks gathered on a neighborhood walk, which you then burn in your fireplace or a charcoal grill. It's the honoring of light that matters. You might also bake a Buche de Noel, or if you're really strapped for time, buy one at a local bakery. Discuss the meaning of the Yule Log as you eat it by candlelight.
- Take a walk at dusk for a week or two, or just go stand in your backyard at sunset. Notice where the sun sets and when. You might even want to keep a journal of this data, maybe the same night each week for the months of December and January.
- Rise with the sun on the 21st. For families with little children, this won't be as hard as it sounds. You probably already do already! Go outside on the front porch or balcony to watch the sun rise. Eat polenta with lots of butter for breakfast. It's a sunny food! Discuss how corn is grown in the summer, at the opposite end of the Wheel of the Year, and now we warm up with its sweet sugars and starches as winter officially begins. If you eat eggs, serve them sunny-side-up!
- Read winter books, like When Winter Comes by Nancy Van Laan (ages 3-7), The Winter Solstice by Ellen Jackson (ages 7-10), or The Return of the Light: Twelve Tales from Around the World for the Winter Solstice by Carolyn McVickar Edwards (listening to chapter books to adult).
- Cut out snow flakes. Use yellow or gold paper to make suns. Hang them from the ceiling or stick them to the wall or hang them on a Yule tree.
- Bundle up and take a walk in a local park or your neighborhood to search for signs of animals. Discuss what the trees are doing. Gather trinkets like pine cones and feathers to decorate your family altar or centerpiece. Ask permission of the land to take these treasures home with you and listen carefully to the answer.
- Here in Denver, many families drum up the sun at Red Rocks. You may want to find a community ritual, sun ceremony, or other local activity. Check your local newspaper for large events, or local New Age or Pagan book and gift stores for open rituals. Or make your own, inviting another family or your entire community to share Solstice dawn together.
- I like to offer one gift to my children on Yule and save the rest for Christmas morning. We are an eclectic family with strong Christmas family traditions. I've seen so many arguments as to when you should celebrate - as if it makes one a bad Christian to honor the Solstice or a bad Pagan to open gifts on Christmas. It is all about family, light, love, and gratitude. These are the important parts to remember, whenever you celebrate.