'The Wheel of the Year' is an ancient Celtic calendar based on festivals that celebrated people's connection with nature - no religion or certain beliefs are needed to celebrate. Helping children connect with the rhythms of nature has many benefits and by celebrating festivals our ancestors marked, when peoples activities were more closely tied to nature, is an engaging way of doing this.
The Wheel of the Year calendar revolves around eight festivals - each signalling a shift in the natural world around us. This post is about how to celebrate the Winter Solstice (Yule) with children. You can see our Wheel of the Year resources here.
The word solstice comes from the Latin 'solstitium' meaning 'sun stands still' because the apparent movement of the suns path north or south stops before changing direction.
The history of the winter solstice
The Pagan celebration of the winter solstice (also known a Yule) marks the longest, and drakest night of the year in the Northern heminsphere. It's when the North Pole is at the firthest point from the sun. The Druids (Celtic priests) would cut mistletoe to hang in homes, which they saw as special as it represented life in winter months - and often grew, parastically, on oak trees - which they also saw as sacred
Many Pagan midwinter ceremonies involve a ritual fight between the Oak King of the summer and the Holly King of the winter. Contrary to what you might expect, at the Winter Solstice the Holly King is defeated by the Oak King as the sun begins to regain his powers, building to his greatest strength at the Summer Solstice, when he is defeated by the Holly King and the world begins its journey into darkness once more.
The Celts (Pagans) thought the sun took for 12 days in winter and at this time they'd burn a yule log to conquer darkness, banish evivl spirits and bring luck. The Yule Log was lit on the night of the winter solstice and left to burn 12 hours as symbol of hope the sun with light and warmth would return.
The Feast of Juul, was observed in Scandinavia in pre Christian times. Fires would be lit to symbolise the heat and light of the returning Sun and a Yule log was gathered and burnt in the hearth as a tribute to the Norse god Thor.
The ancient Romans also held a festival to celebrate the rebirth of the year. Saturnalia ran for seven days from the 17th of December. It was a time when the ordinary rules were turned upside down. Men dressed as women and masters dressed as servants. The festival also involved decorating houses with greenery, lighting candles, holding processions and giving presents.
Im the Middle Ages, the Yule log was brought into the house and decorated, before being burnt in the hearth to ensure a prosperous new year.
Elements of these celebrations have been incorporated into things people do today linked to Christmas and the Winter Solstice.
Winter Solstice activities
Light is a key part of winter solstice celebrations. There are many ideas of things you can do, and here are just a few! In 2023, the Winter Solstice in the UK falls on December 22nd (at 3.27am to be exact!) Make a lantern and go on a walk
Simple lanterns can be created using glass jars, or old milk cartons, and covering with tissue paper and adding a candle (or battery powered candle). Add a handle and then take your lantern for a night walk.
Decorate a yule log (or bake one!)
Decorating a yule log is as simple as getting a small log and adding greenery and a candle (see image above). A hole can be drilled into the top of the log for a candle or clay/plasticine used to prop up a tealight. I made thees as a child at nursery and it's still an amazing memory that we had it in the centre of the table on christmas day! At secondary school, we also 'baked' a yule log. This is a swiss roll, covered with chocolate buttercream and a fork used to create the 'log' effect. Then add some festive (including the sprinking of icing sugar to look like snow). With small children you can buy a pre made swiss roll for an easy fun, and yummy, activity!
Create an advent spiral The spiral pattern is often found in nature and today it’s marking the path through the seasons. The start is summer, then autumn, with the middle being winter, and then you start to spiral out again to spring.
There are lots of different takes on the winter/advent spiral. We have created one on the floor with nature finds like conifer, pine cones, sticks, rocks etc. You can light the way with fairly lights or lanterns. Children can then walk the spiral with their lantern. It symbolises moving into the darkness while shinning their inner light. You can encourage the children to think about their own inner light, a gift they offer the world/others - something special about who they are. They can pause at the centre of the spiral and say it out loud, or just remind themselves quietyly of their gift/inner light. It's a great chance to reflect.
Signs of winter walk
This is as simple as head off for a walk to spot sifgns of winter. We have a 'spotter sheet;' you could use here.
Decorate a tree for wildlife
Help the wildlife through the long dark winter by providing some food, and making a tree look lovely! This can be done in many ways, but a simple one is take garden ties and thread on popcorn and cranberries. Create a circle and add string to tir to the tree. Very festive looking and a lovely treat for the birds.
Make candles and/or fire burners
Rolling beeswax candles i s alovely activioty to do with children. We create 'Forest Holders' for our candles using bottles with pine/fur/spruce tree added and water. The candle fits in the top. Fire burners are like little candles that can help get a fire started. They involve melting beeswax and adding to a bun case that has things such as mini larch cones in, cinnamon and dried orange in - plus add a wick.
Read a Winter Solstice story
There are lots of lovely winter solstice stories - and you can read one here. This is a story based on folklore and tales involving some familar characters! It's rather magical and has some great discussion points. Snuggle up and have a read.
Make Reindeer food
Once you have read the Winter Solstice story above, making reindeer food is a lovely activity (you'll know why when you've read ther story!) Mixing ingredients such as oats, bird seed, and cranberries together and adding to a bag with ribbon. Yoiu can use raisions but not if dogs are around as they aren't good for them. It can be gifted or used yourself on Christmas Eve to guide the reindeer to your home.
Make a winter wreath - or any winter decorations
Bring the green into your home! Simple wreaths can be made using willow hoops and decorating with conifer, fir, spruce, and pine as a base, and adding additional green such as ivy, holly, bay and maybe herbs like rosemary! Adding pinecones is a lovely touch. Simple and effective.
Have a fire!
Inside or out, a fire is always fun and the light and wamth appreciated on the longest darkest night of the year.
Enjoy your Winter Solstice celebration...
We hope you enjoy the ideas here of ways to celebrate the Winter Solstice with children. We'd love to hear things you get up to and/or hear your own ideas for how to celebrate. You can contact us via social media or at Catkinandco@gmail.com
Our Wheel of the Year Cards and activity booklet are in production, beautifully illustrated by Ellie Lewis Illustrator. If you can’t wait for the printed versions - then you can download the cards and wheel for just £2 here.
If you enjoy looking for signs of winter - check oiut our Winter Tree ID cards .