“This is your new sun,” says Alistair in appropriately hushed tones as he hands us each a lit candle. We take one and sit down, quietly reflecting on what we just experienced.
We’re sitting in the dark surrounded by trees, on wild land between Brighton and the South Downs. There’s a stillness in the air. In the distance, an owl hoots then a horse neighs, reminding us we're not alone out here. It’s December 21st, a few days before Christmas, and we’re coming to the end of School of the Wild’s ‘embodied’ winter solstice ritual.
The ritual is a silent reflection on the year that’s ending, and gathering of thoughts and intentions for the year ahead. Alistair’s devised it for this the longest night of the year. It's the Winter Solstice. Or it will be at 4.49 in the morning to be exact.
It’s about 8pm now, and it’s been properly dark for hours. The earlier driving rain is gone, the wind has died to nothing, and the moon is breaking through. We probably won’t stay out til the early hours, probably another hour or two.
Our solstice fire is a celebration of this turning point in the seasons. A marker that says our lives are part of a larger cycle, that’s always moving, always renewing. A profound way to tune into the magic and beauty of the season.
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Mesmerising slow motion video of our solstice fire. Uploaded by Alistair.
Throughout history, in every culture, this month has been a significant time of ritual, reflection, and renewal. In the last few weeks though, the annual pre-Christmas pressure of shop til we drop, eat and drink more than you care to, and rush about like lunatics has taken over.
It’s funny really because at this the darkest time of year, our natural inclination is to turn inward, to become quiet and introspective, to stay home more often, sleep longer… or at least that’s what I would rather be doing.
It’s been an effort to come out tonight. I’m tired and the day’s wet weather has not helped. “Remind me why we’re doing this,” I say to Alistair as I pick him up from his apartment. The weather’s been atrocious all day and we’ve been fifty-fifty on going ahead.
It’s still raining as he puts his bags in the car. The inevitable cancellation phone calls and texts come through on the way out. “Are you still going ahead?”, “I think I’m going to stay home this evening”, “I’m not feeling too well”... Luckily it’s just a few.
An indecision or an intuition, I’m not sure, but I’ve hung on to the optimistic forecasts and trusted that the weather will clear. And it does just as we arrive in the park.
As we drive along the lane, I stop worrying about the rain and start to ponder on the blindingly obvious: that it’s going to be really dark on site, and we don’t have a lantern. It’s making me a little nervous.
But as we get out of the car and and move our gear up to the site, there’s definitely no rain. I feel a calmness in the dark, the breeze on my face, and the supportive presence of the trees. I know we’ve made the right choice. It feels good to be out here.
Our night vision is kicking in, and in the patchy moonlight we can just make out where the ground is wettest, though we both slip on the way up to the fire circle and then struggle to get the fire going: it takes a few attempts to get it to spark into life. When it does I go to fetch water for tea, Alistair tidies up, and we put the kettle in the fire to boil water for our guests.
About sixteen people are making the trek out into the night, and they brighten when they see the fire. After a cup of tea and the signature School of the Wild silent meditation, we go round one by one sharing what the solstice means to us. We have different stories and reasons to be here.
Alistair has devised a ritual, and he explains the four parts. When we get it, we each go out into the dark on our own, and find a spot to do it.
“Face the west. Imagine the sun gradually setting, at the end of the day. It slowly drops in the sky, until it’s below the horizon... bring that feeling into your body.
“Then reflect on the past year. The events, the challenges, the moments of fun and joy, and connect it with the setting sun. The year is drawing to a close. The cycle is coming to an end.”
I see and feel my year from its start, the difficult events of the summer, leading through the past few months, til now. The cycle is coming to an end. It feels calm and powerful. I am peaceful. Still.
“Then turn and face the east. Imagine a sun rise. As the sky gradually lightens, a glow appears on the horizon, the sun peeks above, and then slowly starts to climb in the sky as the day begins.
“Connect the journey of the sun in the sky with your year ahead. The start of a new year that will take you on a journey. The plans you’ll make, the obstacles you’ll overcome, the dreams that will start to come to fruition, the people who’ll help you…”
I see and feel the sun rising on my year, projecting energy, hope and light into my plans, ideas and aspirations. I feel the warmth and happiness… Optimism.
The journey begins.
After twenty minutes, we come back together, and Alistair hands each one of us a candle, our new sun, a light for the start of our year ahead. We share our journeys. It’s been well received.
Walking back in the dark to the fire, we carry our candles. I’m off to the side and I can see only the small lights floating in the darkness. It’s beautiful.
Someone builds up the fire, and I dig out the jacket potatoes that have been baking in the hot coals. Sharing food is particularly meaningful during the solstice, it represents our faith in the return of the sun and the harvest.
The reflective part of the evening over, we chat, tell stories, eat, relax, and pass round some chocolates. There’s laughing, connections, memories...
When the others leave, Alistair and I stay round the fire for a while talking until we really have to go.
It’s been a good night.
There’s something special about creating your own meaningful celebration of the winter solstice, especially doing that out in the wild. In addition to other holiday activities, it can help cultivate a deeper connection to nature, and people, and all the things that matter most. Making the season a time of feeding the spirit and nurturing the soul, not just emptying the bank account and fraying the nerves.
So here’s 10 ways to celebrate the winter solstice:
Let us know how you celebrate the solstice in the comments below.
Author & Curator
Nigel Berman is the founder of School of the Wild.