Winter Solstice: In the Midst of Darkness, There is Light

Lighting one candle
from another –
Winter night.
~Yosa Buson


Winter 2014

Winter 2014

When I was a kid, no one helped me face catastrophe or loss. In the 1950s, everyone I knew feared a nuclear attack. Teachers told us to hide under our desks, probably the same advice kids get now. While the world went nuts with war and McCarthyism, my dad was ill for twelve years and died when I was a teenager.

The adults tried to hide anxiety and pain. They couldn’t, of course, and secrecy created despair and isolation. No one said a thing about facing grief or surviving darkness. No one spoke of lessons to be learned or support to be found.

I longed for a balancing energy. My favorite Christmas carols were “Oh Holy Night, the stars are brightly shining” and the chorus from “We Three Kings”:

Moon Venus conjunction 2014

Moon Venus conjunction 2014

O Star of Wonder, Star of Night
Star with royal beauty bright
Westward leading, still proceeding
Guide us to Thy perfect Light.

Christmas in my childhood family was more about gifts and Santa than Christ and Light. Looking back, I see we were celebrating Winter Solstice and the return of light just as all humans do. We used reassuring cultural and religious symbols while other families used different traditions, but the underlying prayer was the same. Let there be Light.

When darkness peaks in the Northern Hemisphere, Nature offers us a universal symbol. The Sun pauses. It always returns.

DSC01532This year, Anthony and David will be home for Solstice. As we have since their dad’s death, we’ll create a ritual. We won’t have gifts or fancy food. Instead we’ll speak from the heart about what we miss, where things have gone right or wrong, and how to make life better. Our words will be our prayers. We’ll kindle hope by lighting candles. Instead of hiding grief and disappointment, we’ll cradle our losses together. (Don’t worry. We’ll celebrate with gifts and feasting a few days later.)

IMG_0007As I walk through the forest on these short December days, I gather pine cones and acorns. I bought golden beeswax candles and brought out the photo of Vic hiding in red maple leaves. My Green Man. When everyone arrives, we’ll collect evergreen branches, moss, and juniper berries. If we’re lucky, we’ll find red winterberries and a feather or two.

We’ll build an altar with Vic’s photo in the back. We’ll light our candles and tell stories that make us cry and laugh. We’ll acknowledge the hole in our hearts and fear in our bellies and make space for love and gratitude.

Life teeters on between opposites. Dark and Light. Loss and Gain. Death and New Beginnings. The darkest moment yields to new Light. We count on it. It’s that time of year.


DSC01695Two years ago, I wrote How to Create a Solstice Ritual: Honoring Nature’s Pause with ideas about creating a ritual of your own. In 2012, I wrote Solstice Blessings: A Family Ritual of Remembrance and Love about our first family Solstice ritual after Vic’s death. Have you tried creating a ritual of remembrance during the holidays? As a culture, we shy away from shared grief, but my family feels closer when we consciously make space for grief and disappointment. What’s your experience?

  1. A truly wonderful read Elaine! I just love that photo of Vic emerging from the red maple leaves. What a handsome man, and cheeky smile he had. Appreciatively, the ways in which children grieve today have changed considerably. For not only are young people invited to attend family funerals, grief thankfully, no longer remains such an enormous taboo for families, schools and communities.

    ‘Our words will be our prayers’… just right. Thank you so much for sharing, bringing to light I just thought, your ritual and altar plans for the approaching Solstice. I hope your family ritual of remembrance is all that you want it to be and that together as a family you find comfort in each other’s company. ‘Let there be Light.’ Warm winter blessings, Deborah.

    • Thank you, Deborah. I found that photo of Vic 6 months after he died when I was cleaning out his desk. It was the last shot in a packet of promotional photos I’d taken of him about 10 years earlier. He was tired of posing so ducked into the tree branches to hide from me and stuck his face out. Snap! I had forgotten about the photo until I found it seven years ago. It’s my favorite. The one I keep on my altar. I’m also glad when children are invited into the circle of grievers and are allowed to express their own grief.

      I’m glad we’ll have our family solstice gathering when the sun pauses. I’m helping lead another solstice ritual on Sunday with my women’s mythology class. Can’t get enough lighting candles this time of year. Blessed Solstice to you.

    • He was so cute. love the photo, and love the article

      • Thank you, Jackie. I hope all is well in your world. I’ll say it until Dec. 23, and then maybe I’ll say it a few more days. Have a Blessed Solstice.

  2. It’s so enlightening reading this post Elaine. I love the way you choose to celebrate life with your ceremonies and your family. We learn through living about what is of real importance to us, as we learn from both the dark, and the light.
    Wishing you and yours happiness and peace for this holiday season. <3

    • Thank you, D.G. I hope you have plenty of candles around for Solstice. Christmas can be a little gloomy around here, but creating a ritual helps us bring Vic in, acknowledge the darkness of life (and Nature), and be specific about our hopes for inner and outer light. It always helps. Blessed Solstice to you in Canada.

  3. Thank you Elaine for this lovely post. There’s something so calm and grounded about this ritual honouring what was and is, and will be as the sun pauses and then turns, bringing light. On Christmas Day around the lunch table, we remember those who are no longer with us, i.e. those who’ve died; as well as those who are far away, family and friends. We give thanks for all that we have. This time round, we’re at home in Johannesburg and not at the sea as we usually are. We’ll find a church to attend in the morning. And, with the summer solstice coming up, I always acknowledge this longest day of the year and the shortest night.

    • When I write anything about the cycles of Nature, I think of you in South Africa, Susan. You broaden my world just by being in the southern hemisphere.
      In recent years, I’ve acknowledged the cross quarters, too. I like to notice the rhythm of ever-changing light and the passing of each season and promise of the next.
      It’s good to name those we miss, isn’t it? And that makes space for the stories about those people, especially the funny ones. Have a wonderful Christmas and a wonderful Summer Solstice full of sunlight and flowers.

      • so lovely to re-read this Elaine, thank you 🙂

        • Thank you, Susan. Blessed Solstice to you and your family and to the whole world.

          • And another year goes by – another quarter, a new season – ❤️

          • Yes. And the challenges stack up. May the world calm down. Cornell University (half an hour drive from my home and where I went to college) had a sudden outbreak of 900 cases of Covid. They’re checking to see if it’s Omicron, but meanwhile classes were canceled and healthy students were sent home. Ones who test positive will spend part of holidays quarantined on campus. What a challenging world! We need the comfort of the night sky.

  4. What a beautiful way to celebrate life, and expose pain to the open air. Wounds cannot heal when they’re tightly bandaged. You continue to inspire me. 🙂

    • Thank you, Rica. Inspiration is mutual. It’s so good to do this with family. They might hesitate just a little, but I expect you’re asked them to do more challenging things than light a candle and remember someone who won’t be home for holidays.

  5. I love the rituals, Elaine. It’s so great that your sons participate and contribute. I’m trying to figure out a way to gently get my son in on something mildly spiritual. He’s such a cowboy, I can’t imagine any positive response. Maybe I can get him to light candles with me over some good whiskey?

    • My sons hesitated a little, but they were used to this sort of thing. If it takes whiskey, include that in your ritual, too. A candle and a shot glass for Marika and maybe a song for her? You can create a simple ritual without making it a big deal. Light a candle and say (with no warning), I’m lighting this for Marika. It’s done. The ice is broken. Let me know if you do anything sneaky and get away with it.

  6. Elaine, I love the way your respect for ancient myths and cosmology permeates your life and work. It seems all the great religious traditions have found ways of incorporating light in darkness during this season.

    My husband and I were recently in the home of a friend, a recent widow whose husband died suddenly, and we were moved by the depth of her grief, a sign of the depth of the love she shared with her husband.

    Friends often fear that speaking about the one who has died will open the wound. We need to be more courageous and ask for permission to tell stories and create rituals like the one you describe. Hearing the name spoken may bring tears, but not hearing the name is much worse.

    Vic. Green man. Vic. Your spirit lives in Elaine and in your children and friends. And through the power of language, you live among those who never met you. You ride the light.

    • Thank you, Shirley. I’m trying to incorporate more of these ancient ideas about myth and cosmology in my writing in an appealing way. They are an important part of my life.

      I’m glad you could be with your friend and not run from her grief. That’s the best gift you can give. Of course, I agree that speaking about our grief makes it easier. Someone sent me an email yesterday asking how to help a recently widowed friend who struggles with holidays. I suggested my friend help her create a ritual and sent this blog. I hope it helps a little. It’s incredibly moving to hear names said. There are so many. We all have people who come to mind first and then more from deeper layers and further back.

      Vic will always be associated with the Green Man since the dream I had 8 days after his death. Even in my stunned grief, the dream brought hope and reassurance. Solstice blessings. We may even have a dusting of snow this weekend before it warms again.

  7. emotionally touching post!
    As the earth turns in it’s orbit around the sun, first going away and a little bit later coming closer to the sun, the illusion is that it pauses. Not really an illusion. Let us think of this as several moments of silence, of reflection and meditation. The ritual of candles and added memorabilia is a wonderful idea. It would be lovely if my family would also do this!

    • Thanks for your comment, Joseph. I understand the astronomical perspective since, as you know, I was married to an astrophysicist who loved Solstice and liked to explain things. The Sun only seems to pause from our earth-centric perspective. No matter where we are, it’s good to slow down and reflect with those we love or by ourselves. The ritual is always touching and meaningful, a quiet moment to open our hearts to the darkness, personal grief, and the struggles of our world. fancy food.
      Solstice Blessings to you and yours. You never know what your family will do if you don’t ask them. I wondered, too. Most people love lighting candles this time of year and you can keep it simple.

  8. Post script to my comment —things are always different when seen from different time or distance perspectives. Grief is also transformed by change of time. The inner world is tightly bonded with the outer world.

    Earth is approx., 90 million miles from the sun at this time of the year, and is traveling at a speed of around 67,000 miles per hour during our winter solstice.

    On earth, our moments of reflection may have been mindfully done in 20 minutes, while, correspondingly, in outer space earth has been moving thousands of miles.

    I am amazed! This idea has much impact upon me!

    Cosmologically yours.

    • I agree, Joseph. Relativity has taught us a lot about perspective on every level. Once it is understood just a little, the ego position shifts off center stage. Always a good thing. Yes, cosmologically yours. I’m smiling.

  9. Today,I connect Vic’s book with our inner world being HEART, and the solstice, outer world, being MIND. I recall that Vic wrote in one of his books that one without the other is a near-impossibility. I will always remember Vic!

    • Thank you, Joseph. That was in ‘Head and Heart.’ You wrote such a beautiful and careful review for that book. With appreciation for your remembrance. I had a dream of Vic last night. He appears in both my conscious and unconscious worlds. Elaine

  10. A beautiful time of ritual, love, and sharing. Lovely, Elaine.

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