Midwinter and the Solstice

The snow is thick and heavy and continues to fall in fat, clumping flakes, blotting out the high rises and hiding the city. The sound of shovels scraping and snow blowers and the shouts of men from their trucks cut through the night, intruding on quiet families huddled around books, around flickering screens, around fires and around the twinkling fairy lights of winter.

It is the night before the solstice, dark and stretching through the hours, with morning a long, long way off.

Holly and evergreen boughs and fragrant fruit adorn the surfaces, here and there, vestiges of ancient traditions which have somehow survived until now. Who decides what is passed on, and what forgotten? Which traditions have been lost to time?

Tomorrow night, to celebrate Midwinter, the Solstice, we will go out into the night, to the brightly lit city skating rink in the centre of a park of twinkling trees. And with the others who spill out across snow drifts and windy streets, we will twirl and laugh and banish the darkness and celebrate this one, long night, the longest of the year, amid the pinks and blues and greens that cut at the lingering, stretching darkness, embodying the light that is missing, the light which will return.

The celebrations last several days and nights, encompassing Christmas and New Years and Epiphany and Women’s Christmas or Little Christmas, an a host of other celebrations, depending on one’s traditions and beliefs and culture.

And then? And then, the snow will continue and winter will whistle and whirl and the grey will still cover and flood the northern world. But the nights will begin to shorten and winter festivals will provide excuses to get out, to celebrate winter, to gather and press up against bonfires on the snow, drink warm drinks, ski and skate and sled and stand, tongues hanging out, faces to the sky, to catch snowflakes tasting of endless childhoods and starry heavens and ice and clouds.

Thoughts on Christmas

I am interrupting the post I was trying to write because there’s just so much Christmas surrounding me, I have to write about it.

I love Christmas. The excitement, the chill in the air, the darkness that comes early allowing all those sparkling lights to shine brightly, the feeling of magic.

We are an atheist family and Christmas for us is really about spending time together and enjoying the traditions we have created over time. But there is still magic in the air.

I’ve read and studied a lot about most of the major religions, and some of the minor ones, both through my own reading and while I was at university. The many similarities between religions are often overlooked but this is perhaps what I find the most fascinating about my studies. Christmas, for example, reflects a number beliefs and traditions that existed prior to Christianity; its lights, tree, wreath and other greenery and berries, for example, recall the older sun festivals which celebrated the beginning of shorter nights and longer days, the return to spring.

To me, part of the magic of the season comes from these bits of older religions which have still survived to this day, and the mysteries surrounding them. The fact that we continue to celebrate some things that the ancients did, that the things they found to be mysterious and magical influence so many of our modern traditions.

Besides world history, family history is also an important part of the holiday. My mother always did Christmas so well. She made it feel like such an event, a special, magical time of year, where the food, the decorations, the music, the wrappings were all perfect. It’s an act I enjoy following.

This year, because I’m off work still and have the time to dedicate to it, I am putting a lot of effort into Christmas. We’ll actually be away in Italy for Christmas itself, but the decorations are up and I’ve been having fun with my son’s advent calendar.

This is the first year he doesn’t believe and because of this, and because we’re going away, we’re doing presents a little differently.

As far as the presents themselves, he’s getting one big one from my husband and I when we return, plus a few books. We’re taking his stocking to Italy but now that it can be stuffed with things from us, it will have useful things like card games, socks, pyjamas and home-made coupons for a week of not doing chores, or of not changing his bed himself, or his favourite dinner. We’ll probably find some Italian treats to add to it, too, once we get there.

And then there’s the advent calendar.

I Googled “minimalist Christmas” and came across all sorts of great ideas. We have a box my son and I decorated a few years ago when I made him a Lego advent calendar. That year, I bought a small Lego set, divided the pieces up into 24 bundles, and put them all into the box.

We kept the box and have re-used it this year, but this time it’s stuffed with clutter-free fun things like a day of skating, a trip to the local comic book store, a Thursday night at a museum (the free night in our city), a cupcake dessert.

The day I put the calendar together, our kitchen surfaces were covered with ribbons, tissue paper, and red cards and, according to my husband, I looked like a Christmas elf. I think I had as much fun making the calendar as my son is having opening it!

I cut red paper up into 24 mini cards and wrote a little message on each one. Some are tied shut with ribbons, others are enclosed in tissue paper with little extras inside them – a tree ornament for the tree-trimming day, kernels of popcorn for movie night, cookie sprinkles for the day we’ll decorate the gingerbread men who have lived in our freezer since last year.

I feel so much better about this kind of advent calendar. It’s such an improvement over giving him one more Lego set, or a whole pile of crummy toys he’ll forget about by the next day. Getting a toy a day for 24 days also seemed to cheapen Christmas a bit. Instead, we are spending more time together doing fun, seasonal things.

And the nice thing is, my son is getting really into it, too. One day last week, he pulled out a tag that said “Christmas-themed lunch.” I had put a tiny Christmas cracker into his lunch bag, cut all his sandwiches and fruit with cookie cutters, sprinkled some red and green cupcake sprinkles here and there and added in toothpicks with little Christmas motifs on their tips.

I wasn’t sure if he would think it was a dumb idea but he actually said he loved the Christmassy lunch the most. He said it was such a nice way to get into the spirit of things.

I couldn’t agree more!