As Winter Solstice (or Summer Solstice for some of you) and Christmas approach during this uncommon time, are you wondering how to celebrate? Uncertainty, fear and polarity abound while many of the rituals that nourish and connect us may not be possible this year. Most of us are weary of the social isolation and the precautions asked of us and there is no promise of immanent relief. But here in the northern hemisphere the winter solstice invites us to do exactly what the pandemic is demanding of us; to slow down, turn within and embrace the darkness. What if we surrender and follow winter’s inward turning tide of quietude?
I love to wander the woods, to revel in the beauty of graceful, unclad branches reaching for the winter sky. To listen to the rustle and crunch of fallen leaves underfoot, the crisp air laden with their rich scent. All inviting me to attune to the rhythm of nature’s dream. All supporting me to move with the energies and cycles of the natural world rather than ignoring or resisting them.
The root of the word “solstice” is the Latin “sol” meaning the sun and “sistere”, meaning “to make stand.” For the three days around the time of solstice the axis of the earth pauses, shifts and moves in the opposite direction. In traditional cultures throughout the world the solstice is recognized as a potent portal. As the sun in our life stands still a powerful energy becomes available to us to pause, reflect, let go of what no longer serves us and nourish the tender shoots of the heart’s intention. It is also a time when, through ritual, we can offer back our love, light and gratitude to the living natural world that sustains us.
The fear and the promise of darkness
While all the energies of nature slow during winter to allow for regeneration we, as a culture, fear and stigmatize darkness. Instilled with the idea that we should be happy and lighthearted all the time, we feel threatened by the dark places in our psyche and what we believe to be ‘dark emotions’. Above all, our cognitive mind abhors a state of stillness. We feel unworthy if we are not productive or that we are failing if we feel sad or afraid.
When we fear our darkness we cut ourselves off from one of the greatest catalysts for transformation. We can listen to and learn from our ‘dark’ emotions – the uncomfortable ones that we don’t want to feel. Each is a portal into sacred presence. Despite the resistance of our hustling, harried mind, we need the regenerative and revelatory powers of the night and we yearn for the peace of stillness. The womb of darkness offers sustenance to the seeds of our creativity, our inspiration and our heart connected wisdom.
Aligning with the cycles of nature
Modern western culture has led us further and further away from the cycles of the natural world. We override the circadian rhythms of our body which keep us in harmony with the rhythm of light and dark. While we understand the powerful effect the moon has on the ocean, most of us are oblivious to the tug of lunar tides upon our own organism. We insulate ourselves from the influence of the weather and the seasons with all manor of technology. Yet we pay a price for shielding ourselves in this way. We lose touch with the energies that have created us and the way in which our personal cycles of change and transformation often mirror those of nature. The more we align ourselves with the rhythms of the living, natural world the more access we have to our innate wisdom. We come home to a deeper sense of belonging,
So as we approach winter solstice, the longest night of the year perhaps we can allow ourselves to surrender to the darkness, the slowing rhythm of nature. When we take a breath and pause, to reflect, to rest and replenish, we create space for the dreaming, imaginal creativity that is part of the language of the heart. Let’s take a break from the imperatives of the ego-mind, from the unnecessary ‘shoulds’ and the pressure of productivity. If we allow ourselves to be cradled in winter’s stillness, with kindness and compassion, the seeds of possibility will grow within.
The life-affirming power of Ritual
We humans are designed for ritual. Whether a simple daily practice, like a steaming cup of coffee in the quiet of the morning, or a special ceremony marking an important life passage, ritual offers us a sense of connection, inspiration and meaning. It provides the alchemical ingredients for us to navigate the inexorable changes we must face. Ritual supports us to harness the unruly and fearful wandering of our mind and attune to the guidance and wisdom of the heart. It aligns us with the cycles of the natural world and offers an opportunity to express our gratitude for the sacred energies that sustain us. Whether personal or communal, ritual offers us a sense of inter-relatedness and belonging to the ever-transforming web of life within and around us.
Yet in our ‘civilized’ culture our lives have mostly been stripped of the meaningful rituals that connect us in this way. If we are to heal, both personally and as a community, we must find our way back to the rituals that bind and sustain us, to the ceremonies that acknowledge reciprocity with the living natural world. We can each participate in this process by engaging with whatever rituals bring us a sense of connection, aliveness or joy.
Winter Solstice, the darkest night of the year is honored by indigenous peoples and wisdom traditions as a potent portal; a time to release whatever no longer serves us and make way for fresh inspiration. While we love to share ritual with others we can also cultivate and practice our own simple , personal rituals. As we may not have the opportunity to gather safely at this time I’m going to offer some suggestions for a personal ritual that you can also share together with others if you choose.
Inviting the sacred presence of Fire in a simple ritual
For countless thousands of years our ancestors have gathered around the fire as a source of connection, sustenance and guidance. Our relationship with fire is woven into our DNA. The sacred presence of fire connects us very naturally to our heart with its love and wisdom. Fire also has the capacity to carry our prayers and intentions to wherever they need to go. At this darkest time of year we can truly appreciate the warmth, radiance and beauty of fire and it lends itself naturally to the celebration of solstice. Practicing a simple ritual with fire, either in a fireplace or with a candle offers a beautiful and time-honored way to harness the energies of this time.
Some Suggestions for Winter Solstice Rituals
- While the most potent time of solstice is the 15 to 30 minutes before and after the exact time in your area it is totally fine to choose the timing that suits you on that day or evening.
- Choose a place where you feel comfortable to spend time with this ritual. This could be setting up a simple alter with candles indoors or lighting a fire in a fireplace or fire pit outdoors.
- Part of the energetic quality of solstice is to let go of whatever no longer serves you. If you are doing your ritual with a fire, rather than a candle, it can be a lovely process to take a walk in nature and look for a natural object, like a stick or a pinecone, that speaks to you of whatever you would like to let go of. This will be offered to the fire. If you are spending time with a candle or prefer to write or draw, you will want to have paper and pens &/or drawing materials available.
- When the time comes, light your fire or your candle(s) and begin by making an offering to this sacred elemental presence. This might be a feeling of love, gratitude or appreciation. It might take the form of a prayer, a song, some music or anything else that is meaningful to you. Ultimately the most potent offering is your feeling. Take your time with this in whatever simple ways feel alive for you.
- Now bring your focus to anything you would like to release. This might be behaviors that you would like to change, beliefs that undermine you, relationships that no longer nourish you etc. Spend time writing, drawing or imbuing your natural item with whatever you wish to release.
- When you are ready, offer the item to the fire. If you are doing this ritual with candles you can burn your paper offering in a large metal bowl and then offer the ashes to the earth or to a stream afterword’s.
- Having let go in this way we create space for peace and possibility. Now, with the support of your breath and the fire, connect to the heart in whatever way works for you. Here you may simply rest in stillness or presence. Or you may invite the creative impulses of the dreaming, imaginal mind and the wise promptings of your heart. You may want to give expression to these musings in the form of writing, drawing or any other way that feels natural to you.
- Now it is time to let go of any attachment to outcome, settling into a state of acceptance of where you are now and trusting that whatever seeds you have planted for the future will gestate and grow without you needing to push or force.
- When you are ready to close your ritual, return once more to offering your gratitude for the presence of Fire and the other sacred energies who witness and support you. In this way you offer back your own light and sustenance to the living world.
Finally… Winter Solstice…
In this time of great transformation on our planet, self awareness, love and courage are the medicines we need in order to know what is ours to transform, to share our particular gifts with the world and to let go of what is not ours to carry. Aligning ourselves with the energies of the natural world is one of the most effective ways for us to rekindle these qualities within. May this solstice, be it winter or summer for you, bring a sense of connection, contentment and courage, knowing that you have the inner resources to navigate whatever life brings.