As part of a nature loving family, and with children who love science, I find the idea of celebrating the winter solstice appeals to me. What better way to honor the mystery and beauty of this earth than mark the changing of the seasons? The winter solstice marks the official beginning of winter. On the calendar, it marks the longest night here in the northern hemisphere, and ancient cultures would celebrate the return of the light at this time. I LOVE that. For me, it seems like a great way to celebrate and honor Mother Nature and her ever-revolving cycles, and the change and beauty of the seasons. It is also a way to learn about history and recognize how this phenomenon was the reason many of our holiday celebrations are celebrated at this time of year.
Last year, I decided to try to institute what I hope will become a tradition in our house—celebrating the winter solstice. We also celebrate Christmas, so I did not want to make our solstice celebration something that would end up being a lot of extra work for me, and since at that time my girls did not truly understand what the solstice was, I decided to use the occasion to teach them about it.
I discovered that there are not many books about the winter solstice that would appeal to my children, but the one I did find was just right. I read The Shortest Day: Celebrating the Winter Solstice by Wendy Pfeffer to the girls, and it really held their attention and piqued their interest.
The book did a good job of explaining how for thousands of years people all around the world have wondered about and celebrated the solstice. While the book does not get bogged down in details that young children might not care about, I wished there had been a few more details for my sake, but nevertheless, it was just fine for my children. I ended up purchasing another book called The Return of the Light: Twelve Tales from Around the World for the Winter Solstice by Carolyn M. Edwards, that I enjoyed reading, as well as some research online.
For example, the first book, The Shortest Day, tells about how ancient people became scared when the sun began to disappear and how they would hold long ceremonies to try to get their gods to bring the sun back, but it does not explain where or exactly when or where these people lived. It also tells of how some of the earliest astronomers measured the days and figured out which days would be the shortest and the longest, and it explains that many of our current customs stem from many of these old rituals held around the winter solstice. Illustrations help explain the story a little more for the children.
The book has a good graphic showing the position of the earth at each solstice and equinox, and it has several suggestions for activities that you can do with your kids. I picked one where you use an orange (or basically anything spherical) and a lamp to demonstrate how the tilt of the earth stays the same as it travels around the sun. This visual even helped the girls understand that as the North Pole tilts away from the sun, we have our winter and the Southern Hemisphere has its summer.
This year for Winter Solstice (December 21), we celebrated up in the mountains with our Free Forest School group. Our weekly meet up spot was full of snow and ice, and made a lovely winter playground for all the children in attendance. We gathered fallen down sticks and brush and built a small campfire for warmth. There was hot chocolate and shared snacks, after sledding, sliding, and lots of snow play. That was followed by story time around the campfire, where we read The Shortest Day, and discussed the significance of that day, Winter Solstice. The children made little bird feeders to hang in the trees, as offerings to our little bird friends. We, then, gathered rocks and limbs and created a spiral on the ground, so that we could perform the Winter Spiral Walk (detailed more in this blog post as well as this one and this one too). The children had so much fun carrying their candles and lanterns from the inner circle, spiraling outward - signifying the light within ourselves that we bring forth to the world, as well as the returning of the light to Mother Earth, as the days grow longer towards Spring. Even the youngest toddlers enjoyed it, and wanted to walk the spiral over and over. The pictures in this post are from our mountain celebration!
Here are some other easy ideas for celebrating the Winter Solstice:
Learn the Science: For young kids, you might want to check out this short video from PBS' Nature Cat, that explains the winter solstice. If you have a globe and a small lamp, you can also easily simulate how the earth orbits the sun by putting the lamp on the floor and walking the globe around it. Use the simple image on this page to guide you. For your older children, this one from Wiz Science, is a little more in depth: Solstice
Celebrate Nature: Many people like to celebrate nature on the winter solstice, and you can probably think of many ways to do this. One idea is getting out of the house for a hike. Or, go somewhere to feed the birds. You can make simple bird feeders by spreading peanut butter on a bagel, and then dipping them into some birdseed, or using hollowed out orange halves full of birdseed. Hang them in the trees in your yard or along a trail in the woods. Why not begin planning your spring garden early? Peruse seed catalogs and do some research on how to attract birds and butterflies to your yard. I miss this part about winter time! I used to love to plan out our garden for the coming planting seasons. Alternatively, you could start a nature journal and jot down the wildlife you encounter on your excursions.
Celebrate the Light: Turn off your electric lights and use candles. Take a break from the Internet, make a warm soup or other favorite dishes, spend time with your loved ones, and tell stories. Talk about the goals you would like to accomplish in the coming year.
Make a Winter Solstice Tree: Last year, my girls and I went outside to gather small branches that fell from the trees. We arranged the branches in some vases and then hung paper snowflakes on them. This was fun to create, and made a pretty winter decoration.
Sparkle Stories is the most lovely audiobook app/podcast/online I have ever encountered. Their stories are slower, kinder, and gentler than anything I have ever come across. Truly lovely! And, the girls are entranced with them. They have all sorts of stories about the different Seasons, Christmas, Advent, the Solstice, character stories, good deed stories, and more. Check them out!!
Here is a Youtube video of a Winter Solstice book for children: Winter Solstice
If you celebrate the winter solstice, please share with us how you do that in the comments section. We would love to hear how other families honor this time of year!