Winter is a season for reflection, for turning inward and for rest. The Winter Solstice marks the beginning of winter and celebrates the return of the light.
There is something magical about Winter Solstice. Don't get me wrong, I love Summer Solstice and the Spring and Autumnal Equinoxes also hold a special place in my heart (can you tell I like seasonal celebrations?). But welcoming the return of the light, gathering around a fire, embracing coziness - it is just delicious. My husband and I are starting to define our own family traditions and this holiday in particular feels important to celebrate and honor as a family.
"With the turning of the wheel of time, let us keep our patience and rejoice in the winter solstice" - Anonymous
My husband and I both celebrated a traditional Christmas as kids, and while we plan to uphold some of our family traditions, we want a more secular (arguably Pagan) set of family traditions. So, enter the Solstice and Yule. We'll begin our "holiday" celebrations on the Winter Solstice (December 21, 2022) and celebrate family, nature, togetherness, kindness, and joy through the new year. As I write this, our family's Yule log sits on our bookshelf, decorated in evergreen boughs, and ready to be added to our Solstice bonfire.
Last year we lightly celebrated Winter Solstice with E, but this year she can be much more involved and I am so excited to share this lovely holiday with her. Here's how we will celebrate with our 15 month old:
1. Add Winter and Solstice titles to the bookshelf
Reading seasonally relevant books is maybe my favorite way to build nature connection and sense of place. Here are some my favorite Winter and Solstice titles, for all ages:
The Shortest Day: Celebrating the Winter Solstice by Wendy Pfeffer
Winter Sleep: A Hibernation Story by Cinyee Chiu, Sean Taylor, Alex Morss
Skysisters by Jan Bourdeau Waboose
The Night Tree by Eve Bunting
Sun Bread by Elisa Kleven
Goodbye Autumn, Hello Winter by Kenard Pak
Grandmother Spider Brings the Sun: A Cherokee Story by Geri Keams
2. Create ornaments and decorate a Solstice Tree
Fostering empathy, stewardship, and a respect for all living things is an important part of nature-based learning. For my family, Winter Solstice celebrations center not only around the return of the light, but around the changes we see in our nature neighborhood. Using the book The Night Tree by Eve Bunting as inspiration, we decorate a Solstice tree each year with ornaments made specifically for our wild neighbors to eat. This is a wonderful family activity that you can adapt for any age!
You might choose to make:
Garlands with popcorn and cranberries
Ornaments with oranges, apples, and Cheerios
Bird seed ornaments with suet or gelatin and bird seed
How you offer this invitation depends on the age of children.
Involve your infants in the process and make it a sensory exploration. Invite them to touch every part of the ornaments you make and bring them with you to decorate the tree. Talk about what you're doing, why you're doing it, and share your own notices as you explore the textures, smells, and colors of what you're creating.
Depending on the age of your infant/toddler, they may be able to do quite a bit with some adaptation! My 15 month old daughter loved trying to string Cheerios on pipe cleaners and was successful in stringing apple and orange slices. I don't love pipe cleaners for this, but it made this activity a little more independent for my daughter. You can also engage your infant/toddler in making some bird seed ornaments. Just grab some bird seed, shortening, and pine cones. Roll the pinecone in shortening and then the seed - just be ready for some mess!
Once children hit the preschool age I involve them in pretty much everything. I use large embroidery needles (real, sharp needles - tool use is important!) for the garlands and ornaments and give the children as much support as they need. Just remember, they often need less support than you think!
3. Create a family Yule log
The Winter Solstice is all about welcoming the return of the sun, and creating a Yule log and adding it to your Solstice bonfire is a wonderful way to coax the sun to stick around. Creating a Yule log is easy! Gather a log (we love birch, but any type of wood will do) and then decorate with evergreen boughs, pinecones, cinnamon sticks, feathers, and anything that feels festive. Display your Yule log at home, and then throw it into a Winter Solstice bonfire and share your wishes for the coming year!
4. Explore changes in light
As the light returns, you may notice changes outside. How long are your shadows? What time does the sun go to bed? Exploring the changes in light this time of year is fun for any age, and older children may notice and comment on these changes themselves. As a family, you could take turns outlining your shadows in sticks and then measuring or filling in your shadow figure with natural items. Or, bring some paper outside and trace the shadows of objects onto the paper!
5. Create a Solstice lantern and take a family (or community) lantern walk
Solstice lanterns are so much fun to create - I may have 4 or 5 at home that I made over the years : ). The lovely thing about a Solstice lantern is that you can make it as grand and involved as you want to so children of all ages can be involved. Here are a couple of simple ways to create your Solstice lantern:
Glass jar lantern
Ripped up tissue paper (choose sun colors like yellow, orange, red)
White glue or Mod Podge
For this lantern, simply paint the jar with glue and add your tissue paper pieces.
Making a wool felted lantern is so special, but I would recommend this for preschool and up. You'll need:
Balloon or dish/container with a cup shaped bottom
Tub of warm water
There's a lovely tutorial on Backwoods Mama. I've offered wet felted rocks as an invitation for preschool children and this is a slightly more advanced wet felting project. Just keep in mind that tiny hands may need some support!
Once your lanterns are complete, add a tea light and take them on a nighttime woods lantern walk!
6. Take a Winter Solstice sunset stroll
Watching the sun go down on the longest night is special. Bundle up and head outside with your family around dusk on the Winter Solstice and, if you can, try to find a quiet and somewhat wild place to explore (*always consider safety first. I do not recommend exploring a new natural area for the first time at night.
Contrary to some beliefs, cold weather will not give you a cold. In fact, cold, fresh air has been proven to be good for you! Just be sure to wear appropriate layers (no one wants to be cold, especially young children) and keep your bodies moving. If you have a very young child, consider baby wearing to make sure they stay toasty!
7. Capture the beauty of winter in an ice ornament
I love love love making ice ornaments! There's something particularly beautiful about the way the sun catches evergreen boughs, oranges, moss, branches, and the other natural materials you add to an ice ornament. And, these are perfect for absolutely any age! Simply gather some natural materials, arrange them in a container (we used our mud kitchen pots and pans), add water, and leave them outside to freeze. You can also add a loop of string before freezing if you plan to hang them, or add them to your mud kitchen like we did below.
To make this more stewardship focused, add bird seed, foraged wild foods, and fruit slices. As the ornament thaws, your nature neighbors will enjoy a feast!
Welcome the light, embrace winter, and have fun!
It can be difficult to truly embrace winter if you live in a cold climate, I get it. But, welcoming the beginning of winter can be a magical family custom and celebrating seasonal changes helps you tune into the natural rhythm that surrounds us. So, give it a try. You might find that welcoming Winter Solstice, even with a toddler, brightens your spirit and helps you find connection outdoors!