Garden Lifestyle

Celebrate the Winter Solstice

    "They call this the first day of winter, but actually it is the beginning of winter's death. ---Den Ming Dao, 365 Tao 355.

Celebrate the solstice, if not with a bonfire, then with candles and lights. Use evergreens and seasonal plants to decorate. Click on other pix to enlarge and read captions.
Photo/Illustration: Susan Belsinger

“They call this the first day of winter, but actually it is the beginning of winter’s death. From this day on, we can look forward to warming and brightening.”

—Den Ming Dao, 365 Tao #355 Winter

Every year, I must write about this event since the winter solstice the first day of winter, actually is the beginning of increased daylight. Mainly, I celebrate the fact that this is the longest night of the year and the shortest day, and hereafter, days will be getting longer and nights will be getting shorter. Hurray for the light! For this gardener, winter is long and cold, and I so look forward to the warming and light so I can garden again. Meanwhile, I know it is time to reflect, turn inward, rest and ready oneself for the upcoming new year.

Officially the first day of winter and one of the oldest-known holidays in human history, today is the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere. Anthropologists surmise that celebrations of the winter solstice date back to more than 30,000 years ago; this is believed to be before the time that human beings started farming. In ancient times, humans built stone structures which were created to target the exact date of the solstice; Stonehenge’s circle of stones were placed precisely to receive the first rays of the sun in midwinter.

With diminishing daylight, people feared it might go away forever, so they built big bonfires to entice the sun to come back. Today’s tradition of adorning our homes with lights and candles, trees and evergreens of the season has been passed down through the ages from the fires burning bright.

I am fortunate to have friends nearby who have an annual solstice party, where we have a huge bonfire in the garden in a fire pit. Trees and trellises are adorned with tiny lights and the walkway is lined by glowing luminaries. As we stand around the bright flames, we pass bowls of cornmeal for the ritual of letting go of the old and inviting in the new. It is sort of like celebrating the new year early. Part of the evening’s celebration is that each person grabs a handful of cornmeal and tosses it into the fire, getting rid of things that they want to release from the past year. When the cornmeal hits the fire, it ignites and sizzles, sometimes sending little sparks of showers or color. With another handful, one tosses cornmeal on the fire with wishes for the upcoming year. There is usually drumming and singing. And most often the folks gathered around the fire are bundled up in heavy coats, scarves, hats and mittens or gloves. 

This year, Mother Nature has chosen to give us a warmer solstice here in Maryland rather than a bitter cold, bone-chilling night. It is in the 60s and feels nearly balmy. So today, I’ll be outside tidying up the garden chores which I didn’t get to before the cold set in, as well as stack firewood under cover which will keep it dry for the winter nights ahead. Not only is today warmer, there has been a lovely moon, which was full on Tuesday (known as the Full Cold Moon), so we will have moonlight to shine down upon the festivities.

My annual offering to the potluck celebration is a pot of vegetarian chili. I begin the preparation by soaking beans the day before cooking (black beans are my favorite although sometimes I use pinto or red beans) and make it the day before since it tastes better the next day, just like soup. Along with beans and the trinity of cooking (onions, celery and pepper) the chili is seasoned with garden-grown hot chile peppers and garlic and herbs, bitters, sorghum molasses, and bittersweet chocolate. I often add chunks of sweet potato or winter squash. I like to have garnishes of grated cheddar cheese, chopped scallions or onion, and fresh cilantro leaves. Since I make the chili pretty hot (for big dogs), I usually have sour cream on hand to tone down the fire for the little dogs. Try it–you’ll like it.

Meanwhile, back at home, I’ve cut evergreen branches to decorate the house, along with the soft glow of candlelight and plants from the greenhouse. Thank goodness, I have the greenhouse, where I winter over tender perennials and houseplants and annually coax along cyclamen, Christmas cacti, pointsettias, amaryllis and bulbs for forcing. I move them about the house to add color to different places and return them to the light if they start looking stressed. Plants as well as people need the sunlight… and so let us rejoice on the first day of winter and the return of longer days ahead!

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