Jane Elliott PhD

Dec 20, 2020

5 min read

How to celebrate winter solstice when you’re not into to the woo

Because we could all use a reminder that dark times eventually end

Image by Mysticsartdesign

The first time I did something to mark the winter solstice, I wrote down everything I wanted to leave behind in 2016 on little sticky notes and burned them in my cast iron skillet. (This destroyed the skillet, by the way — definitely do NOT do that.) I am not a religious or spiritual person so I felt a bit awkward setting this up. Like I was playing Druid or something.

But living where it gets dark at 3:30 pm in December taught me to love the winter solstice, because it’s the turning point after which the days start getting longer instead of shorter. I decided I wanted to mark it in some way beyond an extra 10 minutes in front of my SAD light. So I read around online and found something to do that felt significant to me.

And by the time I had the lights off and the skillet all set up, I had forgotten to be self-conscious. I got absorbed in what I was doing. Writing down stuff to leave behind felt serious. Like it counted.

One things I wrote down was “Hangovers.” Ten days later, I quit drinking for good. Not because some force outside of me magically made it happen, but because seeing up close and without any distractions how much I wanted that change had a power I didn’t expect.

That’s what’s amazing about ritual. You don’t need to believe in anything outside of the simple actions you are taking to make it powerful. And when you step outside of the everyday rhythm of your days, sometimes you learn things you really need to know. Even if it’s just that, thanks to motions of the earth and sun, winter really and truly will come to an end.

Especially this year, when we’ve all been trapped in the endless day that is the global pandemic, rituals that mark the passage of time in a meaningful way can feel sustaining and encouraging. But if you’re someone without religious faith and with a low tolerance for the woo, it can feel impossible to engage in these rituals without feeling icky or inauthentic — exactly the opposite of the sense of being in tune with the world and others that rituals are meant to create.

But it doesn’t have to be that way, and the winter solstice is a great place to start. In the northern hemisphere, the winter solstice is the shortest day of the year and is usually celebrated from the night of December 21st through sunrise of the 22nd. Although it features in many religious and spiritual practices, the solstice is also an important symbol considered purely in terms of the cycle of the seasons. It’s the natural end of the year, the turn toward spring and renewal, and the point at which the darkness starts to ebb away.

By focusing on those concepts, you can create a richly reflective and engaging ritual experience for yourself without feeling like you’re play-acting. And inside ritual time and space you may find out things about yourself and your life you didn’t know you knew.

How to create your ritual

To design your own solstice celebration, you just need a bit of time, some thoughtfulness and potentially some flames. Here’s what I suggest.

1. Decide what specific actions you want your solstice celebration to include.

Anything that highlights an end to darkness or turn toward new growth is in keeping with the day. Combining a few actions can make your ritual feel more event-like. Some options include:

— Bring greenery into the house and arrange it (anything from a Christmas tree to a bouquet of flowers works) to evoke the return of spring
— Have a fire to symbolise the return of the sun
— Use only candlelight on the night of the solstice to mark the darkness of the longest night and the persistence and return of the sun
— Write down a list of things you want to leave behind in 2020 and burn them (be careful!)
— Make a special meal to symbolise the return of natural abundance
— Make cookies in the shape of leaves or plants to mark the coming spring
— Take a bath by candlelight and think about what you want to grow in the new year. Put greenery like rosemary in the water.
— Get up before sunrise and watch it from a high point near you

2. Create a delimited space and time for the ritual.

Part of what makes a ritual feel potent is being removed from everyday space and time. Ritual time is heightened, cordoned off from the rest of life, marked out as special in some way.

You can create that feeling by setting aside specific time and closing it off to all the regular things you would do during that period. Different lights, smells and sounds from what you experience every day can help create this feeling of a distinct, special time too.

Decide where and how you’re going to do this ahead of time and get as set up as you can. You want to spend your ritual time focused on what you want to do, not looking for your fancy candles or making a playlist.

3. Turn off your devices.

Nothing ends ritual time like a notification from twitter. Skip the pictures and turn that shit ALL THE WAY OFF, even if it’s just for 30 minutes.

4. Review afterward.

Think about what worked for you and what didn’t. Maybe make some notes for next time.

And one last thing: no matter what, remember to give yourself some props for creating space and time to focus on something outside of the relentless day-to-day experience that is 2020.

Ritual takes presence, and presence is hard to come by these days. If you achieve even a few moments of quiet reflection, you’ve done something significant for yourself that you can carry into the new year.

I’m a coach, academic, and writer. Contact me at info@janeelliottphd.com.