One of my favorite Christmas memories is from 1995, when I was 16. It was a cold winter, in the Northern town I grew up in, the kind of cold that is hard to imagine if you’ve never lived in the Arctic or the Subarctic; the kind that clears the sky all the way up to the most distant constellations, and coats the surface of every tree, , windowsill and parked car with a galaxy of stars of its own. Your breath pools out in cascading clouds in front of you, and underfoot, the snow makes a crackling, whispering sound.
The kind of cold that bites at your nose and cheekbones, and makes your toes and fingers lose feeling as you walk on. Everything looks clear in the cold, every detail visible for miles, though of course, on Christmas Eve (when we Finns celebrate) it is dark as anything you can imagine.
Just beyond the streetlights, the darkness sits like the mouth of bag, the door of a closet, ready to swallow you. And beyond that? The forest and the stars, for miles and miles in every direction, darkness unlike the darkness you may imagine: it’s darkness with its own light. In snow, even the smallest particle of light is dispersed, magnified. Stand in it for long enough, shapes emerge, trees, stones, ridge crests appear, drawing themselves onto your eye as it gets used to a different, diffused light.
I lived much of my formative years near a small socker “stadium”, a patch of green on top of a tall, man-made hillock about the size of the average American high school’s football field.
Christmas 1995, after dinner and presents, after the day of decorating the tree, baking, visiting my grandmother and grandfather at the cemetery to decorate their graves, I slipped outside, and walked up to the stadium. No lights were on, the field covered in three feet of snow.
I climbed up the bank and looked out over the town. There was not a single sound, no cars driving, no human voices hanging in the cold air, just the complete silence. In each lit window, a family was getting ready to go to bed, listening to quiet holiday songs, playing games and reading their gift books. People were snuggling into their borrows. No businesses were open, no trains or busses were running, no one was working. The whole country was silent, full of quiet life.
I walked through the drifts to the center of the stadium and laid down in the snow. Above me the stars cast down their light, to have it reflected back to them. Slowly from the cold winter constellations, faint ribbons of undulating light emerged, just the barest suggestion of the Aurora Borealis.
Nothing moved. There was no sound. The stars traveled imperceptibly on their route across the Milky Way.
That’s it. That’s my favorite Christmas memory.
To me, that quiet is the essence of this season. Which ever of the many Holy Days we celebrate on Northern Hemisphere’s Winter Solstice Season, the essence of this season is in the contrasts of death and rebirth, in ruckus abundance and quiet contemplation. In winter, in the dark season, we are meant rest, to be together, to make, to marvel. The antithesis of this is modern “Holiday” season of shopping, selling, rushing around, pressure, conflict, loneliness, all the things that seem to be side effects of this time in many modern cultures.
So, whenever I feel too pulled into the frenzied expectations of this season, I remind myself of the cultural traditions that are nourishing to me in this time, and capture its true magic.
Since those traditions are not secret, but part of the rich, ancient old ways of old “Scandinavia”* and “Europe”*, as well as many “Russian” and other “Eastern European” customs, I am happy to share them with you. For me they are grounding, simple, and medicinal ways to celebrate midwinter, without pinterest-perfection, the need for a lot money, or even a lot of preparation time. Knowing the origin of traditions embedded in the wider culture gives them new depth and a richer meaning. I hope they do so for you as well.
Blessings On Your Solstice Season and Hauskaa Joulua!
Quiet. In Finnish culture of Vanha Kansa, “The Old Folk”, meaning the traditional customs, the three weeks around Winter were a time of rest, quiet, of seizing the bustle and settling into home, community and family. On Winter Solstice the Sun settled into her nest for three days, disappearing all-together, and setting the land into long night, a perfect time to be still and stay in. The world in this time travels to the Underworld, only to be reborn as the days grow longer. The celebration of Solstice is to do our part to ensure that this cycle is completed once again.
Chores like cleaning, beer-making, decorations, and baking were completed before these three days, and folks sung, played games, and told stories in the dark days. Observing the season, its meanings, and continuing traditions is in part what makes Holy Days, HOLY.
The English word Holy comes in its oldest, pre-Christian meaning from heil meaning “happiness, health, luck” in proto-germanic. In old Finnish culture and many other traditional, land-based cultures, preserving “the luck” of the household, village, place, people was the most important pursuit of the people. It was preserved through honoring, reciprocal offerings, seasonal observances, and respecting the greater whole we’re part of are at the heart of most folk traditions. (Whole is another part of this word’s etymology). When we celebrate Holy Days, we are celebrating our part of these cycles.
Modern application: When I feel over-whelmed by the season, I remind myself that the most important thing is not completing all the things I think “make” Christmas (I’m going to use Christmas, Yule and Solstice interchangeably because they are the English words for what I celebrate, but you can insert whatever word works for you), but to spend time with loved ones and family, chosen and blood, doing things we care about. I would rather make less presents, or not have all the dishes, or decorations, than be exhausted or resentful of a Holy Day.
I hope that no matter your traditions, the cycles you follow, or how busy and exhausting your life is, you get a chance to have a moment of quiet, restful time, without clocks or an agenda during the next few weeks. This is the time to compost, to grieve, but also to find joy and delight, to be present, presents or not.
Play! Participating in games, songs, skits and stories are part of the antidote to feeling harried and out of time. Besides quiet, this is also traditionally the season of fun, tales, and spending “idle” time together. Making space for activities we don’t usually get to do together, from puzzles, to quietly reading as a family, we can extend a few brief days or even hours to feel more timeless.
2. Offerings. Many of the old Solstice traditions emphasize offerings. This is a time when folks used up a lot of their best food to celebrate another successful summer season of growing and gathering food. It is a feast of of abundance, but also of making offerings to the Spirits, Gods, and Ancestors. The emphasis of GIVING on this holiday did not come with Christianity, but rather was appropriated by it. In the endless-seeming night, only the proper offerings could guarantee the return of the Sun, and enjoying the feast meant being grateful for the abundance she provides, year after year. (Interestingly Nuutinpäivä and Loppiainen when the Holy Days end is around when we start noticing that the day is growing a little longer.)
Modern application: These offerings are still very well represented in modern Finnish culture and they’re simple and easy to do yourself. Besides giving presents and donating to others in need, offering to animals, particularly little winter birds, who the Old Folk considered the souls of departed family, and messengers from The Otherworld, is still practiced by buying bundles of grain to feed them. Feeding the animals in our households a special meal during this season as a gratitude for their companionship and medicine is a great way to honor this tradition, as is donating to animal protection organizations. I also scatter feed for wild birds in the woods (because if you start feeding birds with a feeder you need to keep doing it, they get used to it and rely on it.).
I’ve written a lot about how Finns go to the cemeteries on the holidays, and put flowers, evergreens, and candles on loved one’s graves.
On Christmas eve, Finnish Cemeteries glow with a sea of thousands of candles. Most modern Finns wouldn’t call this an ancestor offering, but that’s what it is. The Old Folk believe that on all Holy Days the boundary between our world and the Other Worlds is thin.
A simple way to do this, is to light a candle for a family member who’s passed, and to speak their name, offer them prayer, or even leave some holiday food for them.
Speaking of leaving food out as an offering: we always leave food for The Tonttu, an ancient amanita-red-capped forest spirit, now widely associated with Christmas, as “Santa’s helper”.
Like many old spirits, the Tonttu are both kind and mischievous in turns, and it is important to pay them proper heed lest they grow agitated with the household and take away its luck. Often pictured as cute, and harmless small folk, The Tonttu are actually powerful beings, smart enough to reinvent themselves in these times when folks no longer honor spirits or listen to little people.
On Christmas Eve, it is traditional to leave out a bowl of rice porridge (see below) on the stoop or in the edge of the woods for the Tonttu. If you have Scandinavian heritage, this is a great way to reconnect with some ancestral magic, and practice offering to spirit.
Believing in spirits that you give gifts to instead of just receiving, creates a practice that infuses the holidays with some extra magic. If you, like me, live on other people’s unceded land, leaving offerings to “The Spirit of The Place” and making land acknowledgements is a good way to start working through the complexities of settler colonialism. See below also for offering to “animals”, as our non-human relatives are called in English.
Bonus tip: SING! Songs of gratitude, joy and lament, songs of stories, and medicine are great offering for this time. Singing together as an honoring practice gives caroling a lot more depth. The tradition of Wassailing, singing as offering and exchange is a more modern iteration of a really old practice.
Ps. This is obviously where Santa’s Christmas cookies and milk came from ;)
3. Decorating as honoring. Or, your Christmas Tree is an old sacrifice to the Wild Spirits of The Earth and Old Forest Gods. Bringing in EVERGREEN conifer boughs is an ancient Solstice tradition. Sweeping with conifer boughs, setting them up as a welcome mat and finally bringing in a living tree to be dressed in finery are all resilient remnants of tree worship. Conifers and other winter green trees are symbols of life in a time when all of nature is covered in thick ice and snow. They are miraculous in that way. And, as you can imagine, much of the later Christian symbolism about everlasting life comes from those same old, land-based origins.
Trees are my people’s oldest deities and relatives.
In the Northern hemisphere before electricity, central heating, and other modern conveniences, Trees gave us life. In my culture we made our bread, clothes, shoes, tools, skis, homes, light, and warmth from trees. Honoring them is the least we can do.
Modern Application: While Christmas tree farms are environmentally unsound monocultures, there are many ways to bring this magic into our homes even without one. Asking for the branches of Christmas tree lots can provide us with all kinds of lovely conifer scent, craft materials and that old Scandinavian doormat too, while honoring the trees already cut and helping them not to go waste. Windfall branches make not only lovely decorating materials, but are available during this stormy season.
And since lots of folks are wondering what their ancestors might have been burning for clearing and good scent instead of something like White Sage, holy to indigenous Turtle Islanders and in danger in its native habitats, one answer is: CONIFERS.
But more than that, it is important to remember that many Northern folks actually did a lot of steam medicine, another way to release the essential oils present in conifers, to transmute matter into the Other Realms, and a lovely way to keep dry winter air moist.
In other traditions in Europe, folks bring in Mistletoe, Holly, Olive and other green and berry-full trees as the reminders of the life that continues to flow even in this quiet, dying time.
Straw and dried fruit decorations, as well as edible decorations are part of this celebration of the abundance of the past season, and prayer for the next. Cranberry, Rosehip, Hawthorn and other fruit and berry garlands, as well as baked decorations are environmentally friendly and simple adornments, but also make great presents. For years in high-school my best friend and I would make gingerbread hearts that could be hung on the tree with the recipient’s name written on them in icing.
Hanging ribbons and garlands on trees is part of many old Slavic and Ugric offering traditions, not just in winter, but in spring.
Bells! Their not just for churches anymore. Or more precisely, never were. Bells are part of the old spiritual traditions all over the world, used both for creating “special effects” for ritual pageants, helping transitions during medicine ceremonies, sending messages into the other realms, and ringing in ruckus celebration. Bells were worn in Scandinavia by different reindeer and goat deities, and folks went from house to house dressed in costumes and ringing bells. The tinkling of Santa’s sleigh bells, is the memory of old religious rites of many of our ancestors. Hang them all over your home this season for good luck, connection and magic. (I really wish that’s where “I’ll be there with bells on.” came from ;)
I also love that Finnish Christmas, or Yule season extends all the ways to the 6th, known in Christian traditions as The Epiphany. Leaving up your decorations, observing the quiet, burrowing in, for weeks, even as normal life resumes. Why waste good decorations on just a few days? A proper seasonal offering extends through the season.
4. Eat, drink and be merry! Most of us don’t need to be told that this is a season of feasting. Part of being part of natural cycles has always been trusting that if we do right by them, they in turn will keep us fed. A big part of making beer for Solstice was celebrating the grain. A big part of eating a hog, a deer, or a moose was honoring their lives and inviting them to return next year. A part of baking bread and cookies was the expectation that there would be more rye in summer.
This feasting itself was an exercise in trust and reciprocity, in generosity and acknowledgement. In some ways this is the hardest thing to replicate in our modern society. It is easy for many to feast, and it is hard for most to directly offer back to the land and animals and labor that feeds us.
Modern application: Besides giving back to those with less abundance and supporting food webs that do the least harm to the land and animals, my favorite way of practicing this ancient Yule tradition is to give food gifts. They are relatively low-impact, with minimal waste, packaging, and maximum enjoyment. If I have to give or receive gifts, food and drink are at the top of my list.
Everyone I know LOVES food and beverage gifts. Whether you make them from scratch, like tea blends, flavored vinegars, bread, mustard, spice mixes, flavored salt or cookies (all things I’ve made over the years), or buy fancy cheese, wine, sparkly juice, fruit, or chocolate, food, that which keeps us alive and joyful, is one of the best gifts I can think of. Some of my all-time favorite gifts have been recipes and ingredients for something new and interesting, a present of not just things, but information, adventure and skills.
I can’t think of anyone who doesn’t enjoy a food gift, and if you are unsure of the recipient’s food preferences, fear not: a gift certificate for any amount is always welcome. Whether it’s for basic groceries when money is tight, a cup of nice coffee on a crappy day, or for a fancy dinner at a restaurant, gift cards for eats are always a lovely present.
The steam medicine I mention above, is the medicine I speak of the most and always the first when I see folks for health stuff, or talk about Northern European medicine tradition and offering. Combining conifer needle tea with steamy offering to ancestor is a great practice for these dark days. Add Rosehips, Angelica root, and medicinal conks and you’ve got my favorite ancestral brew. It’s something I recommend heartily as an offering if you have Scandinavian ancestry and makes a lovely gift to relatives too. Plus, if you’re in family situations where someone might feel uncomfortable with an ancestor offering, a cup of tea is a low impact, simple way to make one. Sharing tea with your forbearers can be very powerful in this time.
Scandinavian Christmas traditionally emphasizes modesty, sharing and gratitude, and I find that sharing food is good embodiment of that spirit. Donate to a food pantry, bring a loaf of bread to someone, or share a meal with dear ones, food magic is real on Yule time!
With that in mind, here’s a super simple gift from me to you:
A recipe for Joulupuuro, the Finnish Yule porridge, which you can make for Christmas Morning and still have room for dinner later in the day.
3/4 Cup Sushi Rice (traditionally barley, but I usually use rice because that’s what I grew up with)
4 cups whole milk or other milk product of your choice
1/4 cup of water
pinch of salt + teaspoon of butter + sugar (substitute whatever you’d like) + cinnamon + 1 almond/ raisin/ other fruit/ nut
Bring water to boil and add the rice. Once the rice has absorbed all the water and add the milk and some salt. Stir until it boils, then put lid on, turn the heat all the way down. Cook for 40 mins, stir OFTEN (this burns and boils over easily). The porridge should be a pudding-like consistency. Stir in the butter, add the almond/ fruit/ or nut let sit for 10 or so mins and serve with sugar and cinnamon (I also like some butter in there.) Don’t forget to leave some out for The Tonttu…
Whomever finds the Almond in their bowl is blessed with good luck and abundance for the new season!
HAPPY HOLY DAYS, EVERYBODY!
ps. I will likely not be doing any of these things this year, as these are the final days of a huge project we’ve been working on all fall, so if you’re feeling too stressed about holiday traditions or missing out on magic, you can join me in eating some frozen pizza in a house with no running water or lights!
*I can’t write a short history of these concepts, but I just want to note that some of these customs are OLDER than these constructs, and I’m a little tired of “American” friends treating my culture like it’s a part of these monoliths. Just as an aside ;)