How to Celebrate the Winter Solstice in Appalachia
Updated: Feb 6
A New Beginning
At the darkest moment of the year, the Winter Solstice marks the final change from autumn into winter. Night covers up most of the day, as the arc of the Sun bends lower across the sky. Each day has grown shorter and shorter ever since the Summer Solstice six months ago, but over the next few months they will begin to grow longer again while Earth tilts on its axis. As the rest of the world slows down, Yule offers an ideal time to reflect on the past and set intentions for the new calendar year.
Sometimes known as Midwinter, the Pagan festival of Yule has been absorbed into the celebrations of various religions around the world. Excluding the Nativity story of the Bible, most of the traditions associated with Christmas originate from this ancient holiday.
Santa Claus (Saint Nicholas or Father Christmas) embodies the winter season with his snow-white beard and elven workshop at the North Pole. Before the spread of Christianity in Europe, Yule had connections to the Germanic god Odin. For people living in the Alpine Mountains, Saint Nicholas became paired with a devilish figure known as the Krampus. As a were-goat, the Krampus resembles other Pagan deities of the wilderness. Goats remain a common symbol in Yule decorations, especially because the Sun rises in the constellation Capricorn during this time.
Folk tales from Iceland describe thirteen Yule lads who descend from the mountains to spread mischief among people. As with Santa Claus and the Krampus, the Yule lads bestow gifts to deserving children and punish the rest. Icelanders also tell of a monstrous feline called the Yule Cat, which prowls around the edges of town on the longest night of the year looking to eat people who did not receive new winter clothes.
The Twelve Days of Christmas likely descend from the old festival of a goddess and fairy tale character named Frau Holle (Old Mother Frost). Gaelic tales describe a similar winter deity named Beira (also known as the Cailleach, or the Hag), who gave birth to the world and all of its spirits. Celtic myths also recount how the Oak King transfers rulership of the forest to the Holly King at the solstice; oak trees lose their leaves by the end of autumn, while holly trees blush with red berries in the understory.
Romans paid homage to Saturn with their annual Saturnalia festivities. Equated with the Greek god Cronus since antiquity, Saturn carries a scythe and an hourglass as the personification of death, time, and the harvest. When the Romans encountered the Germanic tribes of Northern Europe, they saw similarities between Saturn and Odin.
In preparation for the winter holidays, decorate the house with boughs of evergreen holly, ivy, and pine. Mistletoe (Viscum album in Europe; Phoradendron leucarpum in North America) grows high up in the branches of certain trees, especially oaks, so harvesting it like the ancient Druids presents somewhat of a challenge. Also, keep in mind that holly, ivy, and mistletoe berries are all terribly poisonous. Many types of pine needles, however, make a delicious and healthy tea to drink.
Burning yule logs in the fireplace or in a fire pit outside keeps a millenia-old tradition alive. Candles offer a safe alternative to honor the return of the light. Bringing a real tree into the home and decorating it with ornaments brings people into a closer connection with their environment. After an early sunset, sit by the fire with friends and family to tell each other stories or cozy up inside with a book. Caroling originated from the ancient practice of wassailing, singing to the trees for a bountiful harvest in the year ahead.
For people living without a home or struggling to endure in a harsh modern society, winter is an especially difficult time. Giving away extra clothes, food, or even toys will help to make a difference and shares the spirit of Yule with the community.
Frosty beards grow on bare twigs and brown leaves, spreading down mountains and valleys. Bears crawl into their dens to hibernate as the coldest months of the year approach. In the absence of dense foliage, colorful songbirds like cardinals and blue jays become a more visible presence around the neighborhood. Even though deciduous trees like oaks, hickories, ashes, birches, and maples hide away behind their bark, evergreens like fir, spruce, hemlock, pine, rhododendron, and holly take center stage in the brief exposure of sunlight. Many of the trees used for holiday decorations in North America grew up on farms in the Appalachian Mountains, where they face dangers like acid rain and increasingly hot summers. When the snow eventually falls, an ethereal silence envelopes the land.