Good Day Sunshine

Put some heart and soul back into your holidays with a Winter Solstice celebration

December 21st is Winter Solstice — the first day of winter and the shortest day of the year. Celebrated by cultures across the globe for more than 6,000 years, it signifies the return of light and with it, life.

At age 23, having just returned home from a three-month stint living abroad in Russia, New York-based Monique Peterson found herself overwhelmed with the neon marketing and disgusted by the “buy, buy, buy” mentality of the holidays. Peterson decided to celebrate Winter Solstice by taking a hike with loved ones and reflecting in gratitude for everything she already had, instead of focusing on the need for more. Sixteen years later, she continues her December tradition.

For those willing to think outside the big box store, Winter Solstice celebrations are a meaningful way to gather with friends and honor the true spirit of the season. Here’s our guide to get you started:

Sunrise, Sunset

What’s the difference between any standard holiday party and a meaningful Winter Solstice gathering? “Setting an intention,” says Donna Henes, author of Celestially Auspicious Occasions: Seasons, Cycles, and Celebrations. “It’s about going to the source of our holiday celebrations — what does this day really mean to us?”

On the eve of your celebration, start the night off by watching the first winter sunset. “We have forgotten some of the simplicity of living, and seasonal rituals bring us to a simpler time in life,” says Joyce Arnowitz, an intuitive consultant and counselor in San Rafael, California, who has organized solstice events for over seventeen years. For six days during the Summer and Winter Solstice, the sun rises and sets in visibly the same location, whereas the rest of the year it moves across the sky from day to day. Watch the sun set on the shortest day of the year, and welcome the return of longer and longer days until summer.

Lighten Up

Use candles to illuminate your home, recalling a time when sun and fire were the only sources of light. Decorate with found items from nature, such as evergreen and felled pinecones. A small rosemary plant, used in early solstice celebrations as an “herb of the sun,” could make a nice parting gift.

Solstice celebrations don’t need to be complicated, overly serious affairs; a solstice ritual can be as relaxed and simple as sharing a potluck meal and having your guests share a funny story from the previous year. For a more dramatic touch, ask guests to make a wish for the upcoming year while lighting a single candle. With each wish, the room grows brighter — a symbol of the light returning.

Eat, Drink and Be Merry

As for what to serve, think rustic simplicity showcasing local, seasonal ingredients, like root vegetable gratins, hearty bean stews and squash or sweet potato ravioli.

Build a bonfire and sing drinking songs with a mug of wassail (recipe at right) around the blaze. For city-dwellers whose tighter quarters are fire-unfriendly, download a campier version of the real thing for your desktop by Googling “fireplace screensaver.”

Playing it Solo

You don’t need to stage a shindig to create a special day. Richard Heinberg, author of Celebrate the Solstice, recommends going on an energy fast by lighting candles and spending the day without television, cell phones, computers or other non-essential appliances. Write letters to loved ones. Set intentions for the upcoming year.

What To Read

Celebrate the Solstice: Honoring the Earth’s Seasonal Rhythms through Festival and Ceremony by Richard Heinberg (The Theosophical Publishing House)

Celestially Auspicious Occasions: Seasons, Cycles, and Celebrations by Donna Henes (Perigee Putnam/Penguin)

Solstice Evergreen: The History, Folklore and Origins of the Christmas Tree by Sheryl Ann Karas (Aslan Publishing)


What To Drink

Solstice Wassail
Particularly popular in Germanic countries, wassail is a hearty holiday beverage, a contraction of the Anglo-Saxon term meaning “be healthy.” Its long steeping time envelops your home in the cozy scent of cinnamon and cloves, while adding a liquor like brandy, to taste, will put some spirits in your holiday spirit. Serves 6-8.

2 pints and one-quarter cup brown ale or winter ale

3-4 cinnamon sticks

4 cloves

Zest from one-half lemon

4 apples

one and-one-half cups brown sugar

1 cup port

one-half teaspoon ground cinnamon

one-quarter teaspoon ground all spice

one-quarter teaspoon ground cardamom

one-half teaspoon ground ginger

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F.

In a large saucepan, pour in two pints of ale. Add the cinnamon sticks, lemon zest and cloves and bring to a simmer over low heat.

Take an apple, and score it around its circumference with a knife. Place in a baking dish. Repeat this step for all of the apples. Cover with one cup of brown sugar, frac14; cup of ale, and all of the port. Cover baking dish and place in oven, cooking for 30 minutes.

While apples are baking, place remaining sugar and spices into the saucepan, ensuring it’s well mixed.

When apples are done baking, place entire contents of baking dish into saucepan. Allow to cook over a low heat for another 30-40 minutes.

Serve hot, in mugs.

— Adapted from


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