A Sense of Wonder Sundays-Winter Solstice: The Return of the Sun by Coreen Weilminster, Children’s Program Coordinator

They blew in with the wind…all 17 of them, bundled to the brim against the biting chill — four families arriving for an afternoon at the Arboretum. A Sense of Wonder Sundays, a new program for families, enticed them out into the bitter cold. The topic of the program this day was the Winter Solstice. The group, with ages ranging from 2 to middle-aged, came to learn about how ancient rites celebrating this day have shaped our current holiday traditions.

Heralding the first day of winter, the Winter Solstice marks the shortest day and the longest night of the year. To ancient people whose lives were intimately fixed to the seasons, this day was a significant turning point: the day that marked the return of the sun. After the Winter Solstice, the days begin to lengthen, the nights to get shorter.

Among the topics of discussion: the science of the shortest day , holiday traditions such as feasting, the use of evergreens, gift giving and caroling with their beginnings rooted in the ancient celebrations for a returning sun. We discussed the traditional Christmas carol The Holly and the Ivy, significant in its origins in the celebration of the Winter Solstice, having maintained its ancient acknowledgement of the sacred plants used in celebrations and also adapting to include the traditional English and Christian rites of the Holiday season.

The group also braved the blustery bright day to hunt the Arboretum grounds for the sacred plants used in ancient rites celebrating the Winter Solstice. We hunted for evergreens, Holly, Oak, and Mistletoe. The families easily found many species within the visitor center gardens. Evergreens they found included Southern Wax Myrtle (Myrica cerifera), Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana), Loblolly and Virginia Pines. Hollies were both evergreen and deciduous; Inkberry (Ilex Glabra), American Holly (I. Opaca), and Winterberry Holly (I. verticillata). Oak’s included Pin Oak (Quercus paulustrus) and Willow Oak (Q. phellos). We walked a bit further to the entrance of the Arboretum to find the Mistletoe (Phoradendron flavescens) which grows in the branches of the River Birches which grace the entry to the grounds.

We broke for a brief lunch and resumed the program with another hike in the icy wind, this time to the Arboretum nursery to make natural ornaments for each person to take home. The ornaments, a tradition of the Arboretum, are made for the all-weather feathered ones who live here. Using pinecones, cranberries, raisins, peanut butter and birdseed, the families worked together creating “icicles,” tiny wreaths, and pinecone birdfeeders. Once we returned to the Visitor Center, the children and the parents gathered around the Arboretum’s Christmas tree at the outside entranceway, and placed similar ornaments (made earlier in the week by the Arboretum’s talented docents and volunteers) on the tree. We sang a “light” version of “Oh Christmas Tree” at the end and returned indoors for mulled cider, hot chocolate and Christmas cookies.

Throughout the day, I kept thinking about the lyrics from “Over the River and Through the Woods,” specifically the line “Oh how the wind does blow. It stings the toes and bites the nose, as over the ground we go.” Despite the bitter wind, there was a warmth about this day – families sharing their time together, making memories, and creating gifts for the critters that live among them as they contemplated the significance of the holiday traditions rooted deeply in observing and celebrating the earth.

The Shortest Day
Susan Cooper

So the shortest day came, and the year died,
And everywhere down the centuries of the snow-white world
Came people singing, dancing,
To drive the dark away.
They lighted candles in the winter trees;
They hung their homes with evergreen;
They burned beseeching fires all night long
To keep the year alive,
And when the new year’s sunshine blazed awake
They shouted, reveling.
Through all the frosty ages you can hear them
Echoing behind us – Listen!!
All the long echoes sing the same delight,
This shortest day,
As promise wakens in the sleeping land:
They carol, fest, give thanks,
And dearly love their friends,
And hope for peace.
And so do we, here, now,
This year and every year.
Welcome Yule!!
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