Lighting Up the Darkest Days of the Solstice

A household without worship celebrates the longest day of the year and brings loved ones together.

Like many descendants of Irish immigrants, I’m what they call a backsliding Catholic. Baptized and confirmed, I was a devout child who believed fervently in the soothing properties of the confessional booth. I prayed nightly, I attended Mass weekly, and I absolutely loved Christmas. It was my favorite holiday. As far as I was concerned, it had everything. Christmas was both a chance to be pious and to receive presents! I could eat chocolate oranges and play with the fairy lights! I particularly liked to lie underneath our Christmas tree at night and look up through the boughs at all the colors, inhaling deeply the scent of pine sap, cinnamon, and cloves. With my mother and siblings, I baked and decorated cookies, made pomander balls to hang in the window, and occasionally threaded popcorn and cranberries on string—just like they did in my American Girl doll books.

Unsurprisingly, given the vast difference in their enjoyability levels, I stopped going to Mass long before I stopped celebrating Christmas, but eventually I walked away from most of my Catholic rituals. The reasons are too complicated and personal to explain here, but suffice it to say that the church no longer brought solace and joy to my life. Yet my taste for cloves and cranberries didn’t fade, nor did my love for twinkling strings of light. In the darkest days of the year, these things had brought beauty. And I wanted to mark the winter somehow, pay tribute to its apex. I wanted to feast and toast, to celebrate the passage of time, the warmth of family.

In 2019 I gave birth to a little girl, and that same year my family began to regularly celebrate the solstices. It’s something we had done before, but never in such an organized fashion. Our child’s arrival inspired us to turn these lopsided light days officially into holidays in our household. My husband and I agree that we don’t want to raise our daughter with religion. But a house without worship isn’t one without values. We want our child to learn how to respect the natural world, how to share, give, and celebrate. We want to make our home and meals feel festive, to give shape and meaning to the year. Celebrating the passage of time isn’t, in my eyes, pagan—although our little parties might look that way to an outsider.

In the summer we weave flower crowns, make chamomile tea from our herb garden, eat fruits and cake, and dance. The aesthetics were inspired, at least in part, by a trip I took to Aroostook County to see the Midsommar festival several years ago. I fell in love with the lupine crowns and bouquets, so now we grow lupines and pick them in late June. At our seasonal events, we try to eat local food, decorate with plants picked from our own yard, and spend some time stargazing. (I’m still learning all my constellations.) This means our little girl can stay up late with us, eating treats and looking at the sky.

This winter, we’ll adorn the kitchen and living room with pine boughs and evergreens stripped from the back trails. We’ll probably decorate a fir tree, and I’m sure we’ll have presents for each other. There’s always a big fire in the woodstove and usually a fire outside, too (especially if we’re having friends over and need to socially distance). We’ll dress up fancy and sit down for an unphotogenic feast—potato pancakes, red cabbage, beefy borscht, and other hearty dishes. It’s not so different from Christmas, I know. The scents are the same, and the tastes are similar. But for me, the meaning has shifted. There’s no church to visit or god to thank. Instead, we thank each other for being present. I remind myself to be grateful for the time I have lived, the days both light and dark.

This essay was published in the November/December issue as a part of a collection in which we asked our contributors to describe how their families embrace the holiday season.

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