“Today is the shortest day of the year.”
I remember Daddy telling me that when I was about four or five as we were leaving Granny’s house where we had been opening presents and celebrating Christmas with the family. It was probably only about 4 o’clock in the afternoon, but it was already getting dark and cold and it seemed just a little ominous. The shortest day of the year. I remember realizing then, for the first time, that there was not the same amount of daylight every day and that if today was the shortest day, the rest must be longer, lighter, brighter. I think about that little moment every year on December 21.
The technical term for the shortest day of the year, or the longest night depending on how you look at it, is the Winter Solstice. On this day our Pagan brethren celebrated the rebirth of the sun, a return to the light from the darkness of winter, building great monuments that aligned with the rising or setting of the sun. Think Stonehenge. The ancient Romans celebrated the Feast of Saturnalia to honor Saturn, the god of agriculture, wealth, and liberation. And the Scandinavians, who are a big chunk of my heritage, celebrated a twelve-day Feast of Juul (Yule) beginning on the Winter Solstice, a custom upon which many of our current Christmas traditions are based.
Every year my inner Swede longs to celebrate this day. My outer Southerner thinks it would be a blast too. So what, I thought, would it be like to have a Southern Solstice celebration?
First we’d need a Yule Log. Southerners love to set things on fire, so I think it would be proper to have a big bonfire. Build your fire out in a field where you can dance around it with reckless abandon, or, if you are afraid the fire will get away from you, a 50-gallon drum makes a good vessel for a big fire. And if you don’t live where you can light fires (or shouldn’t light fires), pine scented candles would work. Lots and lots and lots of pine scented candles.
Why pine? Because evergreens symbolize life during the dark winter months, and Loblolly, Longleaf, and Shortleaf are all prevalent in Alabama. Gather in some holly, and some cedar, and some pine boughs. Place them over the mantle and over the door. Or maybe you just have room for a few sprigs artfully arranged in your Granny’s hobnail glass vase.
Intersperse some pomander balls around through your greenery. These oranges studded with cloves symbolize the sun and our return to longer, lighter days. And oranges grow plentifully in the South during the winter making them symbolic of our region’s temperate, sunny climate. Plus, they smell darn good. We used to make them every year, and if you dust them in a little orris root, they’ll last for years and years and years. Tie a little festive holiday ribbon around them to make them extra special. (Here’s how you can make them yourself.)
The Romans, as part of their Saturnalia celebrations, would trade places with their slaves for one day, treating them to great feasts, wine, and fine clothing. In our Southern Solstice celebration, we should take a few minutes and look deeply into ourselves and imagine what it would be like to be someone completely different than you are. Imagine what their life is like, their struggles, their triumphs. Maybe you imagine yourself as poor or rich, Muslim or Christian, Black or White, gay or straight, conservative or liberal. I believe that if we all walked in someone else’s shoes for even just one day, much of our bigotry, hatred, and discord would fade away.
Then we could all go wassailing together in harmony! (Or disharmony, if I’m singing.) Wassailing is basically the tradition of drinking up a bunch of alcohol and going caroling. Whether you’re drinking Pappy Van Winkle or Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill, get merry! And if you go from singing What Child Is This? to belting out Sweet Home Alabama, we won’t give you even a little bit of side-eye at our Southern Solstice celebration. It’s all a joyful noise, now isn’t it. (Here’s a great recipe for true Wassail that contains the most Southern of all libations aside from moonshine: bourbon.)
With all this drinking, their must be some feasting and roast beasting! It’s too much trouble to sacrifice a pig, or even a goat or a chicken, these days, so let’s just settle for the next best thing: barbecue. Roasted swine flesh, especially the crispy charred bits, prepared in our traditional Southern method of slow roasting, smoking, and saucing is the perfect foil for all that drankin’. And the grease will help coat your stomach and prevent a sure hangover. But if it’s too much trouble to order barbecue, pop open a can of Vienna sausages and serve them with Saltines. It’s close enough, and there’s no judgment during the Southern Solstice celebration. We’ll save that for the other 364 days of the year.
Run nekkid through the woods. Ok, you don’t have to be nekkid unless you just want to and don’t think you’ll get arrested, but you should still get out of your house, out of the city, and back to nature. The Winter Solstice is a time to recognize the end of the dark and sad winter where things have turned gray and died and celebrate the beginning of a new season of growth and fertility. If you do happen to get nekkid, be careful of fertility, though, especially if you’ve been all up in the wassail. Otherwise we’ll have more than just a solstice to celebrate next year.
After a night of revelry and debauchery, stay up to watch the sun rise. If you can’t sit on a ridge in the foothills of the Appalachians or on the sugar sand beaches of the Gulf Coast, enjoy the new dawn from your porch, yard, or balcony. And as the sun peeks over the horizon and begins to warm the day, take just a teency minute to think about making the most of longer days, sharing the sunshine with those around you, and the promise in the year to come.
Then go in the house, eat some leftover barbecue, and chase it with a Bloody Mary. Nothing like a little hair of the dog that bit you to start a new day off right. Especially if it’s going to be a longer one.