Editor’s note: This article has been updated.
For some years, consciousness has been shifting toward simplicity and ecological awareness during the whirlwind holiday season of parties, gifting and bringing family together. But for those of us who grew up during the “more, more, more!” decades (when giving an even bigger TV, a luxury branded sweater or a diamond-studded wristwatch seemed to symbolize both love and success), we may have lost the thread that used to link generations through seasonal traditions.
These days, we try to choose sustainably-produced, useful gifts, but it can be hard to locate the intersection of delight and meaning that marks a special experience we look forward to year after year. Our family groups are smaller than ever. Many feel isolated, even in the midst of the hustle and bustle of December.
Sometimes it seems all highways lead to the big-box shopping plazas, but it’s crucial to notice the road less travelled: the one that leads to the park, the beach or the mountain. Sharing the beauty of our world brings us together, both family and strangers. We are also seeking new ways of staying home. In that warmth and comfort, we can connect with our core values, explore new skills, and treasure one another’s company.
Embracing new traditions
The ideas shared here can be scaled up or down for a single person, a couple, or a large family or friend group. Some of these projects dovetail with familiar, cold-weather activities such as decorating and baking; others take an approach at once ancient and modern.
Many of the old customs have a remarkably small carbon footprint, requiring no gas-fueled travel, electronic devices or disposable plastic. Despite (or because) of their basic nature, such activities have a remarkable power to bring us closer to the subtle changes happening this time of year outside our walls, in the thickets and meadows, as plants and animals adjust to the weather and the daylight dwindles.
Solstice dawn and dusk
The edges of the day can be magic in winter, when we make time to notice them. Thousands of years ago, our distant ancestors made rituals round these turning points in the year, honoring the darkness as well as the light. The ebb and flow of the seasons formed a reliable structure for both practical and spiritual life, and all domestic practices understandably depended on the rising and sinking of the sun. Now, surrounded and overwhelmed by dizzying change in all realms, both industrial and ecological, the sun quietly continues its eternal daily illumination, as it has for millennia. Take a moment to pause and reflect on its path through your life.
On the darkest day of the year, some choose to rise in darkness and greet the light in a special way: perhaps with a song, a favorite poem, a few yoga “sun salutations” or simply a moment of silent meditation. You might choose to walk to a hilltop or open space where you can glimpse (weather permitting) the first rays of sun. The solstice is a feature of our environment which brings us together across religions and nationalities — in beautiful symmetry, those in the Southern hemisphere will be simultaneously enjoying the sun’s zenith, their summer solstice! This year, solstice falls on Sunday December 21st. Before electricity illuminated our nights, this was a time of introspections and surrender to the long night. As we turn this corner, the days begin to lengthen slowly toward spring.
For many of us, this year’s Sunday solstice offers the chance to really experience this day of shortest light. Consider combining your greeting of the dawn with a winter hike, or a long walk to visit a special friend. Bring along a small trash bag to leave your route cleaner than you found it. When the light begins to fade (whether you can see the sunset or not) try to spend that time outside as well, before concluding your evening with some traditional dark-season occupations such as soup-making, crafting, music sharing, or story-telling.
Annual bird count
If you’ve never been out birding in winter, you’re missing a treat. Across the country the Annual Bird Count takes place toward the end of December; check with your local Audubon Society to participate. Join an expedition or form your own (it helps to include at least a couple of experienced birders in your group). We often need a good excuse to spend a December day outside; birding provides the chance to connect with interesting people, participate in a “citizen science” project providing useful information about fluctuating bird populations, and enhance our awareness and pleasure in the world around us.
For many of us in the north, preparing for an enjoyable day out means layering up, digging out some sturdy boots, and bringing a thermos of something hot. Bring binoculars if you have them, as well as some patience and your sense of adventure! Newcomers to birding are encouraged on organized outings, and will find a welcoming community and a wealth of knowledge.
This is a special tradition which can fall upon the solstice or any other date that has special resonance for you. Simple, wonderful, and challenging: one evening with no electric lights, no computers, no TV, no cell phones (if you expect anyone will be alarmed by your lack of response, alert them in advance). If possible, extinguish or cover all lighted digital displays such as stove clocks. Agree as a household to turn off all technology at a certain time — preferably before dusk, so you can sit together and watch the darkness fall naturally on your home, welcoming the night with a warm cup of tea or a ceremonial toast.
Light candles, play musical instruments or board games, read aloud or tell made-up stories around the fireplace. Make it a time to be together and leave room to discuss how it feels: the relative darkness can be a bit scary at first to young children, and frustrating for older ones who depend on technology for entertainment or connection with friends.
Provide a sense of occasion with special homemade treats. If you’re feeling ambitious, try planning the evening meal around locally-grown ingredients: earthy and wholesome, with root vegetables, meats from small farms, dried or preserved fruits. Mark it on the calendar well in advance so everyone is prepared (both practically and emotionally — some habits are hard to break even for an evening!). Choose a weekend or holiday evening when everyone is likely to be home and rested to make this most meaningful.
Check your local paper and bulletin boards to find out what community traditions may already exist. Go where you feel drawn to participate and share an experience. For some, this may mean attending an amateur performance of the Nutcracker ballet, a school play, or a holiday-themed sing-along (in the small town where I grew up, a choral group hosted an annual sing-along of Handel’s Messiah which my secular mother loved). Attend a craft fair or a pottery workshop. Others may feel inspired to volunteer to help put together seasonal grocery hampers for families experiencing hardship, spend time with elders in a care facility, or serve pumpkin pie at a homeless shelter’s Christmas dinner.
If you have the energy and time to help out, but find yourself at a loss where to begin, try Volunteermatch.org, an online service to connect willing hands with needed service work (the December holidays tend to be popular dates). If you’d like to be part of a group but can’t find the right one, consider starting your own! Trail clean-up, needlework, poetry-reading, candle-making: the options are endless. Local libraries and community centers can be supportive resources for providing meeting space and getting the word out.
Foraging for garlands
As the hours of daylight grow shorter, for many of us, the weather grows stormier and keeps us closer to home. We can make our gatherings cozy and festive with some simple seasonal decorations, made from all wild or garden materials gathered with care. For beautiful organic home-trimmings, think simple! Just a bundle of branches, artfully arranged and tied with some pretty ribbon or even an old silk scarf, can be the perfect garland for your front entrance or the sideboard of your holiday table.
And making your own wreath is a satisfying and beginner-friendly project; you may enjoy it so much you decide to make them for all your friends. All you really need is a couple of wire coat hangers and some lightweight “floral wire” — the decorating is limited only by your aesthetic vision.
Consider what native plants grown in your region, and which might hold historically symbolic or decorative potential — for example, evergreen trees are thought to have possessed powers associated with immortality to primitive Europeans. Some of us have easy access to the traditional fir boughs and holly sprigs, but if not, use what’s abundant.
Holly was used in ancient Roman festivals around winter solstice to honor the god Saturn (early Christians decorated imitatively with holly to blend in and avoid persecution by the dominant Roman culture). American mistletoe can be found growing in deciduous trees in the southeast, from New Jersey to Florida and southern Indiana to Texas. Poinsettias are native to Mexico. Those in the southwest may choose from local pines and junipers, or less traditional mesquite, succulents such as the century plant, or even fragrant rosemary. Evergreen English Ivy is considered a problematic invasive species in many areas, but it can be an attractive garland after you liberate some native plants from its grip (make sure to dispose of it responsibly after it wilts, to avoid accidentally infesting a new area). Rose hips are freely given by dormant rose bushes this time of year and add some welcome color.
Whatever greenery appeals to you, take care to use respectful, low-impact wildcrafting practices.
- Harvest boughs and sprigs in areas of density and abundance.
- Take only one branch from a less-visible area of each healthy tree.
- Use sharp loppers for a clean cut close to the trunk which will heal easily. Responsibly done during dormancy, tree pruning can enhance a plant’s vitality, stimulating growth.
- Never take greenery from any rare or endangered tree, no matter how beautiful.
Think about combining your greenery-gathering expedition with another special outing such as a nature-identification hike or trail cleanup. Bring your plant identification field guide and your best leave-no-trace wilderness ethics.
Found-object craft day
Ideally, plan your craft day early enough that the results will be available for gift exchanges, whether at the annual office party or with far-flung family members by mail. Prepare in advance by brainstorming ideas and gathering supplies. Check your recycling bin for inspiration — it’s amazing what can be done with some tin cans, empty cereal boxes, bottle caps, some glue and a little creativity! Add bits and pieces from around the house (leftover kids’ art supplies, old costume jewelry, worn out clothes for beautiful fabric scraps) and the yard (any durable plant or mineral including pebbles, acorns, seed pods, and dried flowers).
Pinterest can be a starting place for simple and approachable eco-crafts such as easy ornaments made from pinecones, gathered twigs or a simple cornstarch/baking soda “clay”. It feels great to add something you made yourself (or with your kids) to make any gift more precious. Let the materials inspire you.
Ancestral food traditions
In most American homes, food is a big thing this time of year. In families of all income levels, overeating is a seemingly inescapable tradition. We are mammals after all, with many social customs centered around food, as well as age-old instincts to “fatten up” for the long winter.
Unfortunately, we often fixate on the abundance of the feast, going overboard on sugary and heavy foods to the point of physical discomfort. If you’re the cook, the anticipation of shopping, preparing, and serving all those rich meals (not to mention snacks and deserts) may be causing anxiety and even dread.
Yet special holiday food can also form the foundation of treasured memories and essential family bonding. It works best when there’s plenty of time to cook, the work is joyous and shared, the quantity of items is low, and everyone is relaxed and interested. Instead of choosing the standard menu everyone else is eating, why not make it personal?
This can be an opportunity for connecting with your own historic roots through culturally specific foods (or alternatively, delving into the cuisine of another tradition which fascinates you). If you have a yellowed recipe card transcribed by your great-grandmother in her tiny, perfect script, now is the time to dig it out and try to recreate her kugel, panettone, or chutney. It might take a whole afternoon to assemble the ingredients and decipher the directions, but if you have good company and a cozy kitchen, it will be time well spent.
For those intimidated by kitchen appliances, start with something basic like hot mulled cider or buttermilk biscuits — in our family, even Grandpa’s “Chex mix” stirs fond memories of being small and full of wonder (invented in the 1950’s, it’s hardly “ancestral”, but it is part of my heritage!). Next year, and all the years following, you’ll gain confidence, and your family will be gaining a sense of continuity and tradition through food.
A tradition is made when we return to a practice year after year: we repeat the ones which fit us best. This may mean the activity feels meaningful and rewarding, or simply that it dovetails with our particular interests and inclinations. “Foodies” may gravitate toward recipes, visual artists toward craft projects, fitness fans toward mountain hikes.
Greening your festivities can be as simple as my own childhood holiday tradition which we honor to this day. After baking and eating our favorite apple-cinnamon coffee cake, paired with a short gift-exchange ritual, we all put on our snow boots and walk a mile to the public lake access. We notice the thickness of the ice, the color of the sky, and the tiny white “snowberries” clinging to the bare roadside branches.
A simple walk outside enhances our mental and physical well-being, and can provide a miraculous “reset” when we’re tense or anxious. The gentle sensory input and invigorating fresh air soothe our psyches, clearing the clutter for a relaxed and magical evening celebrating at home.
How do you escape from the overwhelm and connect with your place in the natural world this time of year?