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Winter Solstice

December 10, 2008

We spent a few days on our study and celebration (studibration? *LOL*) of winter solstice.

We read these books, which explained winter solstice scientifically and gave an overview of how and why different cultures have celebrated this event. They also showed how we have incorporated ancient winter solstice customs into modern Christmas and Hanukkah traditions:

We also read the introduction to The Return of the Light: Twelve Tales from Around the World for the Winter Solstice by Carol McVickar Edwards — Recommended by Chrissy (Thanks!). I enjoyed it, but it was too dense and wordy for the kids to really grasp. We did discuss the main ideas offered:

There are two ways of measuring a year. The lunar year consists of 12 28-day cycles (as the moon progresses through its phases). According to my math, that is 336 days, but according to the book it’s 354 days. I’m not scientifically savvy; can anyone explain this to me? Is each cycle of the moon not exactly 28 days? Am I missing something? Am I just mathematically challenged?

The second way of measuring a year is by the amount of time it takes for the earth to orbit the sun — 366 days. There are 12 days between the end of the lunar year and the end of the solar year. During this time, ancient people turned the normal order of things upside down. Slaves waited on masters, prisoners were released, and rich people gave their money to the poor. People coupled with strangers. (The birth rate in September must have been astronomical.) People celebrated and gave each other gifts.

There were two competing religions, Christianity and Mithraism. In Mithraism, they told of Mithra, the Sun God, who was born to a virgin mother, attended by shepherds, and later performed miracles. The parallels between the two religions, obviously, are striking. According to the Catholic encyclopedia, there is some evidence that Mithraism borrowed heavily from Christianity. Some non-Christians have probably argued the opposite. Anyway, both religions influenced winter celebrations.

In time, Christianity took Europe by storm. Mithra was said to have been born on Dec. 25. Since no one really knows when Christ was born, the church set that as the day for “Christ’s Mass.” The twelve days between the lunar year and the solar year became the twelve days of Christmas.

I don’t know whether anyone still worships a Sun God, per se, but during this time of year the theme of light is reflected in the traditions of virtually all faiths. Christians celebrate the coming of the Son of God who brought light to the world through His teachings and through the promise of salvation. Jews celebrate the time when lamps burned for eight days during the rededication of the temple. Hindus celebrate Diwali, the Festival of Lights. Iranians celebrate Yalta, which was originally created to honor Mithra, the Goddess of Light. All these traditions carry on the theme of light and hope sparked by those early solstice celebrations.

More Resources We Perused:

Cooking: The kids and I read about the Celtic goddess Brigid, and Sarah and I made a variation of this recipe:
from Winter Warmth on

Linguini with White Vegetables and Pine Nuts
In honor of Brigid, a delectable recipe created in white on white. Snowy cauliflower and sweet cabbage are accented with the crunch of pine nuts on creamy white pasta. Wonderfully delicious.

1 pound Italian linguini
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, diced
½ head cauliflower, cored, chopped into small pieces
½ head white cabbage, cored, thinly shredded
5-6 garlic cloves, minced
½ cup pine nuts
Sea salt (I’m going with regular table salt)
White pepper, freshly ground (I’m sticking with black pepper)
¼ teaspoon fennel seed
Juice of ½ lemon
3-4 tablespoons cream or soy cream
Parmesan cheese, grated
Bring a large pot of fresh water to a rolling boil and cook the linguini till al dente. Warm up a large pasta serving bowl.

In a large skillet, heat the olive oil over medium heat and sauté the onion for 5 minutes, until soft. Add in the cauliflower, cabbage, garlic, pine nuts, sea salt, ground pepper, and fennel. Squeeze on the lemon juice. Sauté until the vegetables are tender and the pine nuts are toasted. Stir in the cream.

When the pasta is al dente, drain and pour the linguini into the warmed pasta bowl, and drizzle a little olive oil on the pasta to moisten it. Immediately add your white vegetables/pine nuts mixture and stir well.

Serve at the table with a small bowl of freshly grated Parmesan cheese for garnish. Serves 4-5.

In honor of winter solstice, the kids also made “Sun Cookies”

Trishy and I made ornaments from cinnamon dough, an idea I borrowed from a post on Piseco’s blog. This was a fun activity for my little one, and it smelled great!


  • A Winter’s Solstice CD
  • I also suggested this activity (below) because anything that involves whacking with swords is in popular demand around here; I bought toy swords and a few supplies to make a Holly King Crown and an Oak King Crown. The Oak King has to win, of course, to symbolize the coming return of summer. Sarah and James both wanted to be the victor, until I pointed out that the person playing the Holly King got to stage a dramatic death!

    From this site:


    Not a real battle, but a re-enactment of the old myth of the Oak King and the Holly King. Legend has it that these two brothers meet twice a year at the solstices for a battle. The Oak King emerges victorious at the Winter Solstice and reins for the waxing half of the year. Think of it as a Pagan Solstice pageant.

    If you really want to get into it, let the participants dress up, draping them in gold and silver and rich greens and red fabrics. Crown them with wreaths of plastic oak leaves and holly leaves. Paint and decorate empty wrapping paper tubes for harmless swords. Let onlookers paint their faces like fairies or other forest inhabitants to cheer the Oak King on to victory.

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