What is the winter solstice, and why is it important to celebrate?
The word itself, "solstice," comes from the Latin "sol," meaning "sun," and "sistere," "to stand still." To sum it up, the winter solstice marks the shortest day and longest night of the year in the northern hemisphere — and the turning point before the days start getting longer. There’s an element of rebirth; welcoming the oncoming return of the sun is always a part of winter solstice celebrations. Of course, it’s also the darkest, often most difficult time of the year, so many cultures gather together as a way to support each other. It can be very powerful to take note of the seasonal cycle in some way — after all, it has a huge impact on our daily life.
How long have people been celebrating the solstice?
As I understand it, pretty much as long as humans have been tracking the movements of the sun throughout the year. Sites such as Stonehenge in Glastonbury, the Chaco petrogylphs in New Mexico, and the Mayan Pyramid of Kukulkan all have structures that mark the path of the sun's yearly transit.
Along with group meals, what are other common rituals done in observance of the solstice?
Many different cultures celebrate the solstice, so it can be hard to generalize, but modern pagan or Wiccan rituals tend to include an element of welcoming back the sun. This usually involves light — a wood fire or candles. Many European traditions used apples or oranges, because they mimic the shape and color of the sun. Evergreen plants are also common, especially in Northern European (mostly druidic) traditions; they survive the winter with all of their color intact, so are considered symbols of immortality.
What are some non-denominational ways to mark the solstice that anyone can do?
For me, the ideal solstice involves a recognition of the return of the sun, the start of longer days — that knowledge that spring is on its way, and that life is going to get warm and bright again. One simple way to mark that would be to build a fire in the fireplace or light some candles in sunny colors, like yellow or orange. It’s also a great time to get together with close friends and family for a potluck meal; the idea is to rejoice and remember that we're all getting through the cold winter months together. Because this is the longest night of the year, I like to include a bit of solitary reflection time, too.