Transforming Solstice

Our family celebrates Christmas and Hanukkah, despite none of us being Christian or Jewish. I’m a Unitarian Buddhist, and S has maybe a smattering of Goddess-worship in her agnostic heart. But we observe the former holiday because it’s part of where we come from, and we throw a bone to the latter because we’re trying to raise our child to respect all faiths and peoples of the world. Also, menorahs are cool.

The gift-centric approach to both holidays makes me a bit Scroogey, although I delight in trading tomes with my intellectual friends on Booksing Day, the post-Christmas holiday I invented three years ago as an excuse to clear out a bunch of unwanted books that S had inherited. That leaves me with New Year’s Eve – a holiday I’ve found impossible to celebrate since I turned 30 and started needing to be in bed by 10pm – and Winter Solstice. And while I confess to not really understanding Solstice, and never quite finding a way to build traditions around it, I dig it anyway.

In the Northern Hemisphere, Winter Solstice is the day with the least amount of sunshine – or, from the perspective of anyone who chooses to celebrate it, the day after which winter stops stealing all our goddamn light. It is almost certainly the oldest of the winter celebrations, with Neolithic sites like Stonehenge indicating that Solstice was a big deal long before recorded history began. Practically speaking, it marked the right time on the calendar to slaughter your livestock so you didn’t have to feed them through the leanest months of winter. And since most of your wine and beer was finished fermenting around the same time, you might as well make a party out it.

Around the world mythologies arose to justify or contextualize Solstice celebrations, laying the groundwork for pretty much all the other winter festivals that followed. “Yule,” the Scandinavian-Germanic name for Winter Solstice, is just another name for Odin, the patriarch of the Norse gods. Elsewhere the event usually gets associated with Sun gods, or with the boilerplate dying-and-rising deity because – surprise! – there’s a new year rising right around the corner. This might explain why Christian missionaries in the 4th century chose the end of December to celebrate Jesus’s birthday, since there was already a convenient death-and-rebirth metaphor in place nearly everywhere they travelled. Christmas trees and wreaths are also blatantly borrowed from Solstice (Yule welcome).

Today, Pagans and Wiccans make the biggest fuss over Solstice, but since they’ve never had the mass-communication tools that Christians have, it still ends up being a comparatively subdued holiday, despite its aeons-long history. That’s probably no skin off Pagans’ backs, and anyway it seems more in keeping with the spirit of the holiday to keep it under wraps. There really are no beloved Yule mascots to serve as protagonists in children’s animated holiday specials. And the range of possibilities for Hallmark are likewise limited (the closest rhyme to “Solstice” is “small sticks”). Besides, it’s never going to compete with the monolith that lands four days later.

Many Unitarians celebrate Solstice, though, and one year someone got the idea to make the event big-time by booking the main rotunda in Edmonton’s City Hall. The space itself is odd and gaudy, all beige and grey marble spread beneath a glass pyramid. But, as a large gathering space without a nave-like focus, it served the counter-Christian needs of the event well. At least 200 people arranged themselves in four groups, focused inward towards a small group of readers. Following their lead, all the participants turned to face each of the cardinal directions as prayers and poems were read in honour of earth, air, water, and fire, interspersed with cheerful songs about dying gods and nights that never seem to end. It was weird, and I loved it.

Maybe if I’d grown up with Wiccan parents, Solstice would have seemed like a firmly predetermined event – but, knowing what I know about recent movements to reclaim the holiday, I’m keenly aware that nearly everything about it is haphazard. Whoever planned the City Hall Solstice had no rulebook to rely on; they picked poems they liked, or songs their friends knew how to play on the harp, and everyone went along because who knows, right? Solstice may be the oldest holiday on Earth, but it feels like every year, the celebrants make it up from scratch. To me, that makes it feel like an authentically human event – because most of us, most of the time, are making it up as we go.

After the City Hall event, I moved to the East Coast, but I brought Solstice with me in the same improvisatory spirit. The year X was born, we tromped out into the backyard with candles and a baby Bjorn, and read hastily printed Yule poems in a circle while trying to ignore the dog at our feet who thought it was all a good excuse to play fetch. Some years since, Solstice has almost gotten swallowed up in the mad dash to Christmas, but we still usually manage to find a moment to slow down, light candles, and remind ourselves of which way is North.

My Mom joined us in Lille the day before Solstice. We had no plans or printouts, so we stuck four tea-lights into empty jam jars and walked out into the French rain. Through the windows of the corner patisserie, the clerk looked at us as if a family of werewolves were loose. When we cut through La Passage des Trois Anguilles (“Alley of the Three Eels”), two pot-smoking youths shrank back guiltily from the quasi-religious parade. We had no destination, no intent. X invented a chant on the spot: “I am marching, marching, marching with fire.”

It was cold and wet, but we made it around the block – north, south, east, west. There was fire, as X’s song attested, plus water on our heads, earth beneath our feet, and clean French air in our lungs. We all greeted the Solstice healthy and free and together. And we went back inside to warm baths and chilled Belgian beer. The next day will be slightly longer, but it doesn’t get any better than this.

Blessed be, everybody!


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