Celebrating the Solstice: A Few Thoughts on Being Outside Christmas

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I love Christmas. I was raised celebrating Christmas. And when Lillian was tiny, I created a celebration around the Winter Solstice because I wanted to create an antidote to the Christmas I had grown up with.

Our holiday was about how many presents my sister and I got, and about foddering ourselves on mashed potatoes and sugar cookies, with a dash of my parents fighting thrown in (we were a blended family, with me being the only kid from both my parents, and there was a lot of fighting about ex’s and such). I love my parents fiercely and they gave me so many things – including an inner toughness I rely on almost daily – but one thing I didn’t get from them was a meaningful ritual or a connection to nature, something I have yearned for and had to create for myself. Which, in the scheme of things, is certainly no big deal.

For my Dad, it was an act of love to shower us with gifts, so many gifts it would take us hours to unwrap them all. It was a sign he was not his father, he was not ignorant or poor. It was his own Christmas miracle that he and mom could buy us almost anything we wanted (BTW: we are talking 1960’s buy anything you want, aka Easy Bake Oven and Creepy Crawler Maker, not 2013 buy anything you want aka Tesla’s and private islands).

I love and honor my childhood holiday memories and I wanted my girl to have what I wanted and didn’t get – of course, that’s what we do with our kids. I wanted Lillian to feel connected to nature, to experience the magic glimmer of the holidays and the reality of the earth turning around the sun.

I also didn’t want her to have it all played out in one big bang on Christmas day.

Enter the Solstice. Enter the power and struggle of making up your own holiday. (Note to Pagans: this was 19 years ago. I knew a little bit about other people celebrating the Solstice, but not a lot—I wasn’t part of a pagan community, or a pagan myself, nor was there any Internet.)

Making up your own celebrations is freeing – what makes sense? What feels good? But it’s also fragile. There’s no “we have to light mom’s candlesticks because that’s what we do” or feeling supported by the general culture. That’s hard and also appealing to a rebel like me.

Over the years, we experimented. The first two years we gathered with another family – Kris, Steve, and Sam – and read the two solstice-related stories we could find, fashioned clay animals based on the stories, and put them in a manger in the backyard. Then we ate soup together by candlelight. Those two years were the best because creating rituals with others makes it more real.

Somewhere in there, the “solstice fairy” made an appearance, leaving little fairy gifts on the front steps – always handmade Waldorf-style gifts. We continued reading the same stories, lighting candles, going for walks in the dark.

When Lilly was eight, we moved to the Pacific Northwest, where the return of the light is a MUCH bigger deal than in Santa Barbara. Suddenly, celebrating the solstice was important. It made sense. It connected with us – we wanted the light back.

That’s when we hit upon the ritual we still celebrate (but we’ve certainly missed some years in there, especially after the divorce):

We light candles in all the windows in the house at dusk. Then we go for a walk around the neighborhood and talk about the year – what are we proud of, what are we happy to let go of? When we feel done (or cold enough), we head home…and there is our house, alight with brightness, a symbol of the new year. We then cook together – the very best year was when we lived next to an apple orchard and made applesauce and latkes.

My big take-away after all these years?

We decide what rituals matter.
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It’s harder to make up your own, but someone started the first ones and they probably felt a little odd or out there too.

I would love to hear: What “non-traditional” holiday do you celebrate, or wish you did? What draws you to that date, makes it significant for you? Is your heart yearning to renew this celebration, to share it with others?

Love,

Jen

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Hilary - December 21, 2013

Oh that speaks to my heart Jen,
We have been trying to create our own traditions as our family have not followed the two traditions we originated from. It is freeing but sometimes takes more effort and yes it’s less of a tradition as I tend to be busy preparing for the traditional expectations of others, i.e. going home for the holidays with gifts! We tried thanks giving ( even though we live in Europe ). We’ve tried the winter solstice ( which has great Celtic tradition from ‘Newgrange’ A megalithic tomb from near to where I grew up in Ireland). We haven’t settled on anything yet and my kids are growing up so fast. I am reading your life organiser so tonight I will just listen to my heart and welcome back the light in my life in which ever way it feels right.
Thanks Jen,
With warm winter hugs
Hilary

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    jenlouden - December 21, 2013

    I wish us both luck and simplicity. I see how if I had gone for simple rituals earlier we might still have some we both loved. You know, like you always get socks in your stocking, and some kind of weird fruit and we always read the same book and listen to the same CD while we make cookies… simple stuff. Ah… may you find the light and meaning your precious children.

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Amy Kessel - December 21, 2013

Happy Solstice, Jen!
This is so beautiful, and pierced straight through to what I’m feeling right now. I, too, struggled with the vestiges of Christmas done wrong (not wrong for them, just wrong for me!) and tried to honor the spirit of the season in a way that felt more “right” with my own family. Each year I have gotten a bit closer to resonance.

This year (last night!) my women’s circle and our beloveds gathered at a house deep in the woods. Luminaria and a bonfire outside, and candles inside. We came together with ideas for what we wanted, but without attachment to how it would turn out. And it was truly magical. We all wrote wishes (for ourselves, for others, for the world) then tossed them on the fire. We sang beautiful rounds from all different corners of the earth. We walked in the dark dark through the woods and to a special tree, where we sang about the light we want to shine. Magically, as we finished our song, the tree lit up and we saw that it was covered in simple treats for the kids (including the grown up kids). Phenomenal!

After we feasted, we went out to the bonfire and did a ceremony where we named what we were letting go of, and what we welcomed. All of us, young and old, jumped over the fire to huge rounds of applause. I don’t know when i have felt such sacred connection — to myself, to my children, to my community, and to the earth.

This is a potent time of the year. Celebrating in a way that touches our hearts is the point, as far as I can tell. May we all create that resonant celebration!

Love,
amy

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    jenlouden - December 23, 2013

    what a glorious and wonderful story my friend, sooooo happy for you!!

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mary anne radmacher - December 21, 2013

In a twist that might seem oddly “UN holiday like,” my husband and I have not pulled out are distilled-and-pared-down-to-essentials bins of holiday decorations. We are not purchasing gifts for each other. Our circle of friends agreed to give time and attention to each other, not “stuff.” And that which is being “sent out” to far away friends is comprised of written wishes, love letters or is primarily hand made or from our own abundance. It is utterly unlike anything I have ever done around the holidays and it is paradoxically exciting and liberating. We have no children to consider in terms of ritual-creating. And my own internal focus is on being A Beautiful Witness to Light. Thank you for yet another impacting question – I appreciate how well you do that.

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    jenlouden - December 23, 2013

    Ah Mary Anne, love this. sounds so whole-making and lovely!!! happy holidays, waving from our island to yours.

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Lora Jansson - December 21, 2013

Yes to all. For me, I celebrate Solstice in extremely subtle ways. Somehow, the veil is always thinnest for me on Solstice, and I can feel/love/honor the dark for its mystery that it beckons — not always happy, but sometimes ecstatic. And the light coming, knowing it, too, is mystery. I just simply feel more this day, and this year especially remembering so many friends and beloveds who passed in the past few months. I DO love shamanic drumming by firelight and firelight alone on Solstice. The merge of the drone of the drum, the dark and the light speaks of unity to me, always. Our Christmas now (I am a recovered Catholic) is symbolic in regards to “presents.” I, too, was raised with extravagant presents at Christmas — very magical back then, and a happy memory. But not even close to being a way I want to honor life now.

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    jenlouden - December 23, 2013

    so sweet Lora!! so true and real, too.

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Suzi Banks Baum - December 21, 2013

Oh Jen. This is my story also. After a very quilted together practice led by my Jewish husband and me, from a long lineage of Lutherans-departed from the flock for many reasons…mostly making my own way and seeing how, as we raise our kids, what, really is impactful. And so, last night, at my women’s group Solstice Gathering here, where everyone’s families are present, it was a great joy to have my 16 year old following me in to the Spiral with her friend on our heels. And when I watched the Spiral light up with candles in jars, seeing my communities’ faces aglow watching, singing, my two teens hugging in the cold air…I realized that what we have created may not be recognizable to my elders, but it is good, we are invested in being together on these dark nights and are willing to consider, together, what lights us in these holy days. My kids feel these are holy days, special and different. My husband is there too. So…we make it new every year, building on what we have done before, opening up to new practices, letting go of what feels trappings of practice we don’t feel connected to. The creche` scene is up differently this year. In the place where we usually put it, I made an Appreciation Altar. Nearby is an old typewriter. On the Altar are pads of colored paper and a beautiful hand thrown jar made by a friend. In this, you can place your appreciations, for yourself, your life this past year, for where you are now, or from someone else…whatever you appreciate, appreciates, right? So, this year, our holiday is about appreciation. The tree goes up tomorrow. It is a major comfort to me, knowing there are others making rituals that matter. Thank you Jen. xoxoox S

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    jenlouden - December 23, 2013

    I’m so glad I helped you appreciate the magic!!! Love the appreciation altar!

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Kelly - December 21, 2013

The reason that your Christmas celebrations were flat is because Christ was not the center of Christmas – which is what Christmas is about. We have commercialized it to the point of making it flat and meaningless! A God who loves us SO INFINITELY as to take on frail human flesh and become one of us to save us – his humble birth, the adoration of the angels, shepherds and magi who recognized that God had indeed become flesh – this is the true meaning of what all the baubles, noise etc. is really about. Put Christ in the center.

Don’t worship the creation – Earth – but the Creator who made everything for us, for our use – we are His beloved children. Earth is just a place that He gave to us but that will fade away when He comes again.

A Blessed Christmas to you. May the eternal light of Jesus Christ shine in your hearts – may Our Lady, His Mother, teach you to love Him and give your heart to Him as the shepherds and magi did so long ago, and recapture the peace and joy that Christmas is meant to bring us.

God bless you!

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    jenlouden - December 23, 2013

    thanks for your godly blessings dear Kelly!

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nikkiana - December 22, 2013

I’ve come to find over the past few years that I don’t really celebrate a specific holiday in December, rather I celebrate it more as a holiday season…. The way it tends to work out is that any day in between Thanksgiving and the first week of January (so I guess Epiphany) can spontaneously be a holiday celebration day.

I’m single, childless, and don’t often go to visit my family of origin during the holidays… which tends to make getting attached to celebrating specific holidays on certain days to be a bit of a drag because sometimes you find yourself alone, even if that wasn’t your intention. I find decentralizing the holidays tend to help with the disappointment factor when things don’t work out the way you want them to.

Instead, I try to focus on making sure that I see as many of the friends that I consider family, or speaking to them on the phone if they’re not near over the course of the month.

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    jenlouden - December 23, 2013

    love the idea of decentralizing the holidays! a whole season makes it less stressful in a way, too!

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Melissa Zoske - December 24, 2013

I think many are feeling something ‘different” in the Christmas spirit over the last several years, maybe even longer. I too believe that the over commercialization of this beautiful holiday, has hurt our spirit instead of healing it, which it was originally intended for. We still exchange gifts, but try not to buy a bunch of ‘things’ that really aren’t needed and basically tossed aside after a few hours. We also aren’t going overboard anymore. For some it is difficult to pair down at first. It’s as if there is programming encoded in us at an early age saying, the more presents the better. By making the conscious effort over time to change this, reprograms us into what feels right and good.

Merry Christmas to those that celebrate it and Happy Holidays to those that celebrate the other beauties of this season 😉

Blessings
Melissa

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