For many of us in the Northern Hemisphere, it’s beginning to feel a lot like winter. The temperatures are falling, and the landscape has transformed from the bright colors of fall into the dull greens and browns of early winter. The deciduous trees are now mostly bare, and the evergreens are taking center stage. The days are getting shorter, and the morning dew has turned to frost as we approach the winter solstice (also known as Yule for some cultures).
The winter solstice marks the shortest day and the longest night of the year as one of the earth’s poles (the north pole for those of us in the northern hemisphere) tilts furthest away from the sun (at 23.44 degrees). It also marks the first day of winter in the northern hemisphere, occurring on December 21 this year.
Celebrating the Return of the Light
Winter solstice celebrations date back to ancient times. Although it's the shortest day (and longest night) of the year, this astrological occurrence has been viewed by many cultures as the return of the sun. From “Soyal”, the winter solstice celebration of the Hopi Indians of northern Arizona, to the “Dong Zhi” (arrival of winter) festival in China, people around the world observe the solstice in unique and special ways.
We think this transition into winter on the longest night of the year is worth a celebration! Check out these activities, crafts, and book recommendations to help your family celebrate the winter solstice.
Activities to Celebrate Winter Solstice
While you can head out on the trails anytime during the solstice, what better time to take a night hike than the longest night of the year? You won’t have to worry about the kiddos staying up past their bedtime, and if you time it right you can see a beautiful winter sunset before dinner. You can look for and talk about the signs of winter along the way, or bring along a star chart to point out the constellations and prominent stars you see.
Create a Winter Nature Table
Each season, we switch out our nature table findings to represent the changes in nature. A nature table can be as small as a bowl on the mantle or as large as a table spread. You can include anything that reminds your family of winter such as pinecones, winter crafts, photos from winter adventures, etc. There is no wrong way to make a nature table! We like to find a few items on our solstice “signs of winter” hike to start the collection and add to it throughout the season.
Burn, Bake, or Craft a Yule Log
For some cultures, the yule log signifies the coming of light and longer days. For others, it signifies luck and fortune in the coming year. Many believe the ashes of the yule log promote healthier crops in the coming growing season, and others believe it signifies the birth and coming of Jesus. Either way, the Yule log has brought families and friends together in celebration for centuries. You can create or continue your own Yule log tradition by burning, baking, or crafting a Yule log (check out this website for more information on Yule Log Traditions).
To burn a Yule log, simply choose a log to add to your indoor or outdoor fire. Different woods have traditionally been used in different locations, such as Oak in England, Birch in Scotland, and Cherry in France. You can also add some fun effects by adding color-changing flame crystals (such as these) to the fire. Just be sure you are finished cooking foods over your Yule Log fire before adding the crystals.
If a fire isn’t available to you, you can also bake or buy a yule log cake (here is a delicious recipe to try from Life, Love, and Sugar) or do a yule log craft (such as this one from Little Bins for Little Hands) to celebrate the winter solstice.
Winter Solstice Crafts
Make Solstice Lanterns
Welcome the return of the sun and longer days with a solstice lantern. We love to construct the lanterns during the day, and then turn off the lights in the house and play cards or tell stories by the light of the lanterns at night. There is a myriad of lantern craft options online to choose from. Here are just a few of the options we have tried and love:
- Mason Jar and Tissue Paper Lanterns
- Nature Lanterns Using Twigs
- Easy Paper Lanterns (Great for Little Ones)
Celebrate the coming of longer days with sun-themed crafts! This could be anything from cutting out sun shapes and hanging them on the window, or as elaborate as sewing a sun-shaped bag or pillow. Here is one option from Art of Homeschooling that requires just paper, string, and a glue stick. Or try this cute and easy suncatcher craft from Nurture Store to catch the winter rays all season long.
Decorate the Outdoors
One popular tradition for the solstice involves making edible ornaments to decorate the woodlands or outdoor spaces near you, providing food for animals as they enter the hard winter months. To do this, we like to slice oranges and apples and poke a hole through the top. We then add natural peanut butter to the apple slices and dip them in birdseed before hanging them on our trees in the backyard or nearby wooded area. To adhere to the Leave No Trace Principles most closely, we avoid using string or twine (birds and animals can get wrapped up in them or choke) and use natural peanut butter to avoid added preservatives.
Books to Celebrate the Coming of Winter With Your Family
This adorable and gorgeously illustrated book follows two little raccoons as they learn about winter in the forest. Little ones will enjoy lifting the flaps to discover hidden surprises in the snowy landscape.
Explore nature alongside a sister and brother as they greet the signs of winter. Through a series of conversations with animals and other parts of nature, they say goodbye to fall and hello to the coming of winter.
Looking for more information on the winter solstice and changing of the seasons? This book explains the history, science, and cultural significance of the winter solstice in lyrical prose that kids can enjoy.
This classic Scandinavian tale tells of the troll Tomten who walks around an old farm at night, comforting and caring for both the animals and people in the cold of winter. He reassures the animals that spring will come and helps them endure the harshness of winter.
The Return of the Light: Twelve Tales From Around the World for the Winter Solstice By: Carolyn McVickar Edwards
This collection includes tales from North America, China, Scandinavia, India, Africa, South America, Europe, and Polynesia that honor the “return of the light” and celebrate the beauty of the winter solstice.
Celebrating the “Return of the Light” With Your Family
The winter solstice may be the longest night, but you can celebrate the coming of longer days with these crafts, books, and activities. You may even form some new, fun traditions for your family and make memories for years to come. How do you celebrate the first day of winter? Send us a message and let us know!
Rebecca is a transplant Coloradoan living in Virginia with her husband (Derek) and their two boys. She’s a teacher turned freelance writer/ homeschool mom working towards exploring as much of the east coast as possible before the next move takes her family elsewhere. You can follow her family hiking, kayaking, SUPing, geocaching, camping, and all things outdoor adventuring on Instagram @frazzlednaturemom .