By Beth Schreibman-Gehring, Chairman of Education for The Western Reserve Herb Society unit of The Herb Society of America
The Winter Solstice is once again upon us, that eternally dark and longest night of the year. If I travel even 150 years back in time it’s easy to understand why our ancestors celebrated the Solstice.
December was the time when the harvest had been brought in and put to attic and cellar, the garlic was hung from the rafters, the herbs were dried, beans dried and hung, the onions braided and potatoes and other root vegetables stored. The meat had been preserved in salt, spice and fat, waiting to be turned into warming soups, jerky, and stews. The breeding animals would be tucked away safely in the barn, spending the wintry months growing round and fecund. The wood for the hearth fire had been gathered, split, and stacked. The precious beeswax and bayberry tapers would have been dipped and placed into special candlesticks, ready to bring their magical light and extraordinary scent to illuminate the longest night.
Long ago on Solstice eve we would have harnessed the horses and gone caroling into the woods to cut fragrant pine and balsam boughs to decorate our homes. We’d fell the Yule log…an entire tree that was meant to burn a bit each day for the entire 12 days of Christmas. A little piece of the previous year’s Yule log was always kept to light the fire each day and making a wish upon it was thought to bring the best luck of all for the coming year.
Solstice is one of our oldest feasts, a centuries-old, pre-Christian ritual celebrated at the same time each December as the wheel of the year circles slowly. Celebrating the Solstice entices us to give in to the most human of desires for love, celebration, and connection; for as the sun moves back towards the earth we rejoice that soon the coldest, darkest nights will slowly begin to fade into light and the warmth will return once again to coax the greening from the silent, frozen earth.
Tonight is our annual Solstice celebration, a party that my sister and I have thrown together for more than 20 years. We have planned the most glorious meal and there will be a beautiful fire in the old sugarhouse kitchen where we’ll make wishes on a bit of last year’s Yule log.
There will be plenty of little children to introduce to the wonder of “owling,” one of my son’s and nephews’ favorite childhood memories. We’ll bundle up and walk quietly through the snowy woods in the hopes of seeing one of the beautiful barred owls that live on the property. If you are lucky enough to see this beautiful creature, you will do so after he swoops past you. The magic of the owl is his ability for silent flight, you’ll often feel the wind from his wings, but hear him you will not.
The last thing we do is carry two glasses of eggnog down to the river where our parents’ ashes are scattered, to raise a toast to them and simply remember them with gratitude for all that they shared with us.
This Solstice eve, as I enjoy the laughter and comfort of my friends and the warmth of my sister’s hearth, I have made several promises to myself and several wishes…….
I promise that I will not feel guilty for what I have, but I will share even more of it and waste even less of it. I will continue teaching people to garden well, to grow their own food, to preserve it as I do, and how to use the healing herbs growing all around. I will figure out a way to teach people how to cook and I will find a soup kitchen to serve in like my mother did so long ago. To grow and provide food is to provide room for love to flourish and sometimes we get so busy that we forget all about that.
I love sharing a fabulous feast with my friends, but as I look around this year and see what others do not have, I cannot help but think so much about the traditional origins of the Winter Solstice. We have mostly forgotten what it means to live within our world, to live with each other and to be self- reliant. As herbalists, gardeners, and parents we have a magnificent, magical gift that we can give to the world this year. We can teach the least of them to fish, or in my case garden, so that they can feed themselves and their families forever.
In this season of light, on this Wintry Solstice night, please remember to be generous with yourselves and as brave as I know that you are.