Celebrating the Winter Solstice

A month ago, on an online parenting forum, someone asked for tips on how to skip both Santa and the strictly Christian aspects of Christmas with her children. She asked for feedback if anyone else had done this and had details on where various Christmas traditions originated. Since my childhood did not include Santa and he won't be part of our family tradition, I thought others might also be interested in learning more about how I responded to her question. I explained that my mom told my four siblings and I as children that Santa Claus was inspired by an actual person, St. Nicholas, and though Santa is not real, the idea of him inspires people to give to others. We also were taught that everyone has different traditions and it's important to respect those, so if you were wondering, no I never ruined Santa for anyone else. I've had several friends who were taught as children to believe in Santa express concern that not including him may take away from the "magic" of Christmas. As a child and still to this day, I find magic in the process of decorating a tree and frosted cookies to share with family and friends, in strolling through a neighborhood of houses strung in multicolored lights, sipping on hot chocolate in front of a fireplace with someone you love, and watching your family members eyes light up as they excitedly unwrap the gift you spent months making or picking out just for them. There is so much magic and excitement everywhere this time of year, so please know that if you also weren't raised to believe in Santa or have considered not making him a part of your family tradition, it's 100% okay. Your kids will be just fine. And you will find a lot of other ways to make your family's holiday experience truly special.

Image from Jeh's Today

On the second portion of the forum poster's question, and the main purpose of this post, I thought for many years that Christmas was strictly a Christian holiday. So when I started to explore my spiritual and religious beliefs in college and realized that they no longer aligned with my childhood beliefs, I started to worry that meant missing out on celebrating various holidays. I won't delve too deeply into my religious beliefs here. My super simplified explanation is that I believe there are many religions because there are many different types of people and each of us finds different religious or spiritual practices that bring us closer to a higher being or help us be the best, kindest, most loving version of ourselves. For some that is in long hikes, exploring the outdoors, running, meditation, yoga, prayer, reading, fasting, volunteering, etc. And for some, that also means attending church on a daily or weekly or monthly or annual basis. Mainly, I'd encourage everyone to ask lots of questions, do a lot of soul searching, and find what's best for you and your family. Thankfully both Keith and I went through this spiritual exploration separately around the same time in our lives and came to a similar conclusion.

In the past five or six years, in trying to figure out how we wanted to celebrate various holidays as a family, we have done a lot of research on where various traditions (mainly Easter, Halloween, and Christmas) originated. We found that many Christmas traditions originated in pagan winter celebrations (see this article from the Christian Post). Did you know that Christmas trees were originally called Yule Trees (see this article from Christianity Today with some tree and gift history) and the evergreen served as a reminder amidst the dead of winter that the earth would bloom again? Did you know that December 25 was designated Christmas (though not when historians actually believe Jesus was born), because how closely it fell to the Winter Solstice and Christians hoped it would draw more pagans to Christianity? It is believed that Advent Wreaths were based off pagan traditions of lighting candles during the longest night of the year as a symbol of hope and reminder that the sun would rise again (see this article from Catholic Education). Mistletoe was considered by the Druids to bring joy and peace. Pagan Romans considered laurel wreaths (like the ones we now hang on our doors) sacred to the sun god, Apollo. This article has a further lightened synopsis of various origin stories.

Image from Time Slips on Norse Yule Traditions

I find all of this very fascinating! Plus, as I said earlier, I think it's so important when continuing or passing down traditions to research where they came from and contemplate if it's right for your own family. This is part of the reason three years ago we decided to reduce the number of gifts we exchanged and move to a tradition of "something you want/need/wear/read". We wanted our family celebration to be more about our time spent together and less about the number or size of gifts under the tree. In the past few years, as we started to discuss adding a child to our family, I started to struggle even more so with some of our Christmas traditions and constantly questioned whether we were doing them for the actual symbolism or just to simply do them. I know some day in the not so far off future Adeline will start to question everything. And when she questions why we decorate a tree, exchange gifts, sing certain songs, go to church, hang lights on our house, and give handmade cookies to our neighbors, I want to insure we have a very well thought out, honest response. And not just "because we do". So this year, we're trying something else new to our family that feels more fitting to our beliefs. Tonight we're going to have a Winter Solstice celebration. 

This solstice celebrates the longest night of the year and is often ushered in by turning off all lights in your home and eating your family meal over candlelight. There are many ways to celebrate the Winter Solstice, so if you're interested in learning more or possibly having your own family celebration, I recommend reading this list of suggestions, this article that shares more on the history and various traditions, this slideshow from Refinery29 with some simple tips, or picking up any of these books from your local bookstore. This year, for our first Winter Solstice celebration, we're going to turn off all the lights in our house, turn off our phones, and take an evening walk around our neighborhood together. We plan to bring a few branches of rosemary from the bush out front inside while singing Deck the Halls, and form a wreath on our dining table around four candles. We'll hang a sprig of mistletoe above the front door and shout three times "Hug and kiss, hug and kiss! May this whole house be full of bliss!" Next, we'll light the four candles on our dining table - one for each family member and one for our family as a whole. And then enjoy a special homemade meal together with spiced eggnog and some traditional Christmas music playing in the background. Lastly we'll have our family gift exchange by our tree while Adeline tries to eat the wrapping paper (not part of the celebration) and then we'll carry Adeline to bed by candlelight.

I'm excited to see how our holiday traditions continue to evolve over the years, and I'd love to hear how some of your traditions have changed once you settled down, had children, or did your own research. Feel free to privately message me on my comments page if you have a question on my experience without Santa, how our family Winter Solstice celebration turned out, or if you'd like some of my favorite recipes for cookie exchanges. Happy Solstice! Happy Holidays! Merry Christmas!