In the Bleak Midwinter: Celebrating the Winter Solstice


Florence Robson


Waking up to frost-covered fields, fog stealing over the hills. Coming in from the cold to a warm stew or soup, enjoyed in front of a roaring fire. The childlike joy of an unexpected snow day. Whether you love wrapping up against the crisp, cold days or yearn for the sun’s warmth, there is plenty to celebrate about the winter solstice.

By mid-December, most of the natural world has gone into hibernation, sleeping until the solstice has passed, the shorter days begin to stretch and the sun returns.

What is the winter solstice?

The winter solstice – also known as the hibernal solstice, midwinter or Yule – is the astronomical first day of winter (despite the cold weather often starting weeks beforehand) and the shortest day – or longest night – of the year. Around this time of year, you’ll notice the sky hangs low in the sky, noontime shadows are particularly long, and the sun rises late and sets early.

The winter solstice typically falls on 21st or 22nd December in the Northern Hemisphere and 21st or 22nd June in the Southern. It takes place when either of Earth’s poles reach its maximum tilt away from the sun, hence the Northern and Southern Hemispheres experiencing it at opposite times of the year. 

From Christmas to Hanukkah to Kwanzaa, the time around the winter solstice has become synonymous with celebration across the world.

Winter solstice folktales and festivities

Did you know that Father Christmas and his reindeer have their origins in Yuletide folktales? The Deer Mother is an ancient solstice story about a deer who flew through the longest, darkest night of the year, carrying the life-giving light of the sun in her antlers and drawing the sleigh of the Sun Goddess behind her.

The story of the Deer Mother has been told since Neolithic times and she is still revered by many cultures today, associated with fertility, regeneration and the sun’s rebirth.

There are also a wide number of traditions and celebrations aligned with the winter solstice, stretching back thousands of years. Stonehenge – up the road from True Grace HQ – is still a sacred site for druid and pagan communities and is much-visited at this time of year. For those who can’t reach the site in person, English Heritage live-streams the winter solstice sunrise over the stones.

Around the globe, cultures mark this time of year with feasts, processions and rituals. In Scandinavia, for example, they hold St. Lucia’s Day on 13th December (solstice by the old calendar). Young women dress up in white robes with red sashes and wear wreaths of candles on their heads, while gingersnaps and glogg are served. In Northern Arizona, the Hopi Indians celebrate Soyal with purification, dancing and gift-giving to welcome protective spirits from the mountains. 

Marking the winter solstice

Most winter solstice traditions and celebrations are inspired by releasing the dark and welcoming back the light – both literally and metaphorically. From twinkling lights on Christmas trees to candlelit suppers and crackling fires, light and warmth are an important part of Yule festivities. Why not start your solstice celebration by lighting a candle and taking a moment to reflect on the year gone by and set intentions for the year to come?

If you have a little more time, here are some other ways to mark this astronomical event.

Take a winter walk to chase the blues away. Wrap up warm and enjoy the changing of the seasons around you, perhaps gathering some natural decorations for your seasonal table. With just under eight hours of daylight, every minute counts on the shortest day.

Have a clear out. ‘Tis the season of change – and what better way to embrace the shifting energies than to make a pile of all your unwanted clothes and knick-knacks, ready to make a fresh start in the new year?

Watch the sunrise and sunset. The day is so short that there’s a good chance you’ll get to see both without needing to set an early alarm! Bring a flask of coffee or tea, or mulled wine in the evening, and have a quiet moment ahead of the busy festive season.

Make orange pomanders. These fruity decorations are traditional gifts for the winter solstice, representing light, love and prosperity. Making them at home is a great family activity (there are plenty of tutorials online to get you started).

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