As part of a nature loving family, and with a child who loves 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. It is the day that the northern hemisphere has the shortest daylight hours, so the days following it get a little longer. Because of that, we can celebrate “the return of light.” I love that.
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 didn't 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 boys didn't even know what the solstice was, I decided to use the occasion to teach them about it.
I discovered that there aren't many books about the winter solstice that would appeal to my kids, but the one I did find was just right. I read The Shortest Day: Celebrating the Winter Solstice by Wendy Pfeffer to my seven-year-old. My younger son, who was four, lost interest in the book, but that was okay. We have many solstices ahead of us!
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 seven-year-old.
For example, it 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 doesn't 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 some of these old rituals held around the winter solstice. Illustrations help explain the story a little more.
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 and a lamp to demonstrate how the tilt of the earth stays the same as it travels around the sun. Only I used our globe and a lamp. This visual even helped me understand that as the North Pole tilts away from the sun, we have our winter and the Southern Hemisphere has its summer.
This coming winter solstice, I am hoping to add some more fun things to the day. Perhaps we will make peanut butter bagels dipped in birdseed and hang them in our trees to feed the birds. Maybe we'll bake something special for us to eat as well. Maybe we'll light some candles for a while. Or maybe we'll go on another family hike that day.
I have also considered marking the summer solstice and the spring and fall equinox. But getting myself to remember to do one more thing when our calendar is already so busy is hard. This summer all I managed to do was to tell my boys that it was the summer solstice. When I told my four-year-old that it was the shortest night, he got excited. He thought that meant that he wouldn't have to sleep very long!
Creating new family traditions can be tricky sometimes, but I'm determined to at least celebrate the winter solstice. Whatever ends up being our yearly solstice tradition, I hope it can be another way to inspire awe in my children for this earth, the universe and our abundant lives.
This column was originally published in the winter 2014 issue of HSL.