Celebrating the Winter Solstice

(This is a pastel by my friend Wendy Goldberg, titled Twilight Tomales.)
Paying attention to the seasons and rhythms of the earth helps me to stay more present, so I enjoy celebrating the winter solstice, the longest night of the year. This year on December 21, 2008 at 4 :04 AM PST the earth is tipped on its axis to the greatest degree, so that in the northern hemisphere, the sun appears at its lowest point. (Those in the southern hemisphere are experiencing the summer solstice.)

Throughout the centuries in cultures around the world winter solstice riturals have been focused on the return of the light. I can certainly understand that, especially in times before electric lights and central heat, but I want my personal celebration to focus on what is in this present moment. And what is most present in this moment is the darkness.

So in 1992 I wrote the poem that follows. It has since been incorporated into solstice rituals around the world, including our Friday morning class at Spirit Rock Meditation Center.

For yesterday’s class I was again asked to read my poem, but our dharma teacher Dana de Palma added a new twist, asking me to create a solstice altar, something we have not done before.

Here is the altar:
I happened to have a black and white patterned shawl that I set in the middle of our circle. On it I placed a small low table. I covered the top with aluminum foil to protect it and to reflect the candle light, and filled it with candles, small decorative objects, some natural items I had gathered on recent hikes, and some inspirational phrases (see below). Around the table I took some upturned circular lids from big yogurt cartons and made a ring of twelve around the table, placing a candle in each one. My sangha sisters Patti and Alice brought additional candles, and together with sangha brother Bill, we prepared the altar, making sure each candle was secure and wouldn’t burn down the building! (If it had not been wet out, I might have added some evergreens as well.)

After a delicious hour of yoga led by Janice Gates, in which she encouraged us to feel our expansive hearts radiating out in all directions, even while feeling totally present in our bodies and in the room, and a lovely meditation by Dana in which we felt our inner light growing with each breath, I read my poem and we did a candle lighting ritual.

As I introduced the poem, I told the circle about my own personal difficulty with some of the wording over the years, and how just that morning I had found a different way of seeing it. The poem tells us “Do not be afraid…” Well, I object to anyone telling me how to feel or not to feel, even a poem that I wrote! As practitioners, we are instructed to be with what is, not try to change our feelings.

But now I can see that the poem is just offering an opportunity to question some long held assumptions and beliefs about darkness, to look more closely at this culturally inherited negative story about darkness and see something more there than previously thought. Looking more closely and finding a way to reframe the story is a very Buddhist practice indeed. Phew! It’s not a bossy poem after all.

Here is the poem:

In Celebration of the Winter Solstice

Do not be afraid of the darkness.
Dark is the rich fertile earth
that cradles the seed, nourishing growth.
Dark is the soft night that cradles us to rest.
Only in darkness
can stars shine across the vastness of space.
Only in darkness
is the moon’s dance so clear.
There is mystery woven in the dark quiet hours,
There is magic in the darkness.
Do not be afraid.
We are born of this magic.
It fills our dreams
that root, unravel and reweave themselves
in the shelter of the deep dark night.
The dark has its own hue,
its own resonance, its own breath.
It fills our soul,
not with despair, but with promise.
Dark is the gestation of our deep and knowing self.
Dark is the cave where we rest and renew our soul.
We are born of the darkness,
and each night we return
to the deep moist womb of our beginnings.
Do not be afraid of the darkness,
for in the depth of that very darkness
comes a first glimpse of our own light,
the pure inner light of love and knowing.
As it glows and grows, the darkness recedes.
As we shed our light, we shed our fear,
and revel in the wonder of all that is revealed.
So, do not rush the coming of the sun.
Do not crave the lengthening of the day.
Celebrate the darkness.
Here and now. A time of richness. A time of joy.

— Stephanie Noble copyright 1995

And here is the ritual we did:
Each person in turn lit a candle saying one of the following intentions or another intention that rose up naturally within them, with absolute permission to do so in silence:
May I be a lamp unto myself. (This was the Buddha’s last instruction to his students.)
May I be guided by my inner light.
May my practice bring awareness of my own inner light.
May I light the darkness with awareness.
May my inner light grow and glow.
May I sit and savor the darkness until I see the light.

Because we had about twice as many candles as people, I encouraged people to light a second candle to send metta to anyone they knew that was in need. Everyone did light a second candle, and that addition, though unplanned, sweetened the ceremony further. (My second candle was for my beloved sister-in-law Rose and niece Doris, mother and daughter, who are both in the (same) hospital right now. May they both be well.)

For lighting the candles, we had provided both lighters and matches. Some people had trouble with the lighter or just didn’t like it. People who used matches sometimes felt rushed in saying their intentions while the flame was headed straight for their tender fingers. For anyone wanting to create a ritual like this, I would suggest having a lit taper candle resting in a solid holder – a short glass or cup would do – that would make the lighting simply a matter of picking up that candle and lighting another. (Although I must say that each person’s way of dealing with the challenge was lovely to behold.)

At the end of Dana’s dharma talk about the solstice, after she dedicated the merits of our practice to all beings, we took turns blowing out the candles, saying ‘so be it’ or ‘may it be so.’

Later one sangha sister asked me if I thought she could get away with incorporating a ritual like this into a dinner party she was having with some people she didn’t know well enough to know how they felt about the solstice. Her question brought up such an interesting truth: That many people have resistance to acknowledging this natural annual event of the earth. There is a long history of seeing it as pagan ritual, and a long history of seeing pagans as anti-Christian, when they are just not necessarily Christians, which is quite a different (and totally non-threatening) thing. Even in our little Buddhist community, a significant number of people left before the ritual began, when usually everyone stays for the whole class.

So, with that in mind, I told my friend to celebrate the solstice with her guests by having the radiant heart of a hostess, offering a delicious meal, creating a candle-lit atmosphere, and by staying fully in the moment, allowing the conversation to grow rich and deep. And if, by chance, through that conversation she finds that her guests are interested in celebrating the solstice too, she could have extra candles to create a ceremony, or simply suggest they all bundle up and step out into her lovely garden on this cold clear night and take in the beauty of the star-studded darkness.

So however you celebrate the solstice over this weekend, whether with friends or family, or by adding a little ritual to your personal practice, or simply by giving yourself the gift of a little longer rest on these long winter nights, may you find a sense of joy and deep connection in being fully present in the darkness, present enough to sense your own inner light glowing and growing.

May it be so! Happy Solstice.

One thought on “Celebrating the Winter Solstice

  1. Eric

    Thank you for sharing the details of your solstice ritual. For the last fifteen years, I have been hosting an outdoor solstice ritual. I created the circle, lit the fire, led the ritual, read poems, and encouraged others to sing, dance, and relight their inner light. This year, however, I needed to let go of this ritual. I needed to recognize my attachment to the ritual as an attachment to the light and as an attachment to an ego that believed others needed my help to relight their own light. Instead I found a private ritual with one trusted friend in the very cold dark of the mountains gazing at the stars. Even solstice rituals need to come to an end so that I can more fully embrace the dark. Embracing the dark is not an easy thing. I am gradually learning how to enter it more deeply and release even the rituals that used to carry me there.

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