Celebrating the Winter Solstice with Words


The shortest day of the year and the longest night signals the solstice, the first day of winter (if it did not already seem like winter in your part of the hemisphere).

Humans like solstices. They are one of the oldest known holidays in human history. Anthropologists believe that solstice celebrations go back at least 30,000 years.

On December 21, 2010, there was a full moon that coincided with the Winter Solstice. I’m sure that would have interested the ancients.  In 2009, there was another astronomical coincidence when the Full Moon was on the last day of the year and was also the second Full Moon –  a Blue Moon.

Most of the attention on the upcoming Winter Solstice has been because of the Mayan Calendar, but today I am just interested in looking at how we have treated Full Moons and solstices in some literature.

At the most famous of stone circles – Stonehenge – those stones were carefully placed to receive the first rays of the midwinter sun in a special way. I don’t know if you mark the day in any way, but one easy ceremony might be to read something of the time.

As an undergraduate English major, I am “trained” to see winter (and almost everything!) as symbolic.  The often funny poet, Billy Collins, says that English majors are actually majoring in death. Certainly, winter in literature is often connected to sadness and death.

And we know that in northern climes, winter sends us indoors and if you combine that with that gray outside landscape, you start to understand the seasonal affective disorder (SAD) effect.

That is the time of William Carlos Williams’ “Approach of Winter.”

The half-stripped trees
struck by a wind together,
bending all,
the leaves flutter drily
and refuse to let go
or driven like hail
stream bitterly out to one side
and fall
where the salvias, hard carmine,—
like no leaf that ever was—
edge the bare garden.

As an antidote to that SADness, think about the fact that almost all solstice celebrations are just that – celebrations. They focus on hope since with the solstice day it is the start of the reversal of shortening days. It is as a time to celebrate the rebirth of the year.

Two poems in my moon and solstice collection are  “December Moon” from May Sarton‘s collection Coming into Eighty  and Mary Oliver‘s poem “Herons in Winter in the Frozen Marsh” (from Owls and Other Fantasies: Poems and Essays). Both poets are known for being very tuned in to nature.

I also like this particular stanza from “Toward the Winter Solstice” by Timothy Steele.

Some wonder if the star of Bethlehem
Occurred when Jupiter and Saturn crossed;
It’s comforting to look up from this roof
And feel that, while all changes, nothing’s lost,
To recollect that in antiquity
The winter solstice fell in Capricorn
And that, in the Orion Nebula,
From swirling gas, new stars are being born.

Here are a few more to read that have a range of reactions to the Winter Solstice.

Again a Solstice” by Jennifer Chang
Fairbanks Under the Solstice” by John Haines
You can also listen to Robert Graves’ “To Juan at the Winter Solstice”

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A lifelong educator on and off the Internet. Random by design and predictably irrational. It's turtles all the way down. Dolce far niente.

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