In the middle of our woods stands a very tall slim tree. It reaches high into the sky, leaving the trees around it far behind. At the top of the very tall slender trunk is a mass of branches covered with pine needles and cones. As soon it comes to time to collect natural materials for any activity, the children make a dash towards the tree to collect the pine cones, which become noses, ears and mini trees for fairies and elves. Our youngest children stand beneath the tree and gaze upwards in awe, “It is soooo big” they gasp “It points into the space”. We talk about where it is pointing, maybe to a new strange land where giant green and purple aliens live. A signpost into the unknown.
The tall slender tree is a Scots Pine, the only true native pine tree and thought to be one of the very first trees to grow after the last ice age. According to the Celtic Tree Calendar the Scots Pine is a signpost at the start of the year, pointing the way. Nowadays we celebrate the start of the year on 1st January but our ancient ancestors marked the beginning of the new year on 21st/22nd December, the Winter Solstice. At this time of the year ancient Neolithic sites like Maeshowe in Orkney suddenly reveal their true purpose as the rising sun shines directly down the long corridor and lights up dark interior of the burial chamber.
For many weeks now, a daily class ritual has been to turn off the lights at the end of the day and see how dark it is. Children are naturally curious about the darker nights and, as we try and reconnect a generation with nature, it is important that they become more aware and in tune with the natural cycles of the earth. The 21st December (or sometimes 22nd December) is the shortest day and the longest night of the year. One of the oldest winter celebrations, the solstice marks the rebirth of the sun and the beginning of winter.
The woodland setting offers many opportunities to celebrate the Solstice. Here are our 5 top ways to celebrate the Winter Solstice:-1. Make candles during a Forest School sessions, melting the melt and pour wax on an open fire or small gas stove and then repeatedly dipping in the wick until the candle forms.
2. Fire is a popular way to celebrate with all ages, from fire lighting using fire strikers to a campfire. With younger children use small fire bowls or disposable barbecues. Why not cook bananas in pyjamas or orange chocolate muffins for an extra special celebration.
3. Re-tell the story of The Yule Faeries – A Winter Solstice Story. Children can make peg doll fairies using natural materials and then make gifts for the Sun King, again using natural materials. Hang the gifts from the trees for the Sun King to collect.4. Our favourite activities for younger children are based around the story ‘The Sun Egg’ by Elsa Beskow. The story is about an orange egg which falls into the wood and is found by a very excited elf who thinks it is the sun’s egg. This enchanting story lends itself to lots of activities. The children can search for their orange egg around the woods and then make special nests from natural materials to keep the sun egg safe. Giant ‘land art’ suns can be made on the floor using natural materials. Make orange bird feeders – cut the orange in half and scrap out the flesh, put two small holes in he side and thread through string and then fill with bird food. Complete the session by serving freshly squeezed orange juice.
5. Make a yule log. Yule is the old name for the winter solstice festivals in Scandinavia and other parts of northern Europe, such as Germany. Originally a yule log was a whole tree which burnt slowly through the Twelve Days of Christmas. To recreate with young children use a small log and decorate with natural materials. You could also use some red ribbon. Older children can cut their own log using a bowsaw. Then drill a hole using a drill and bit and add a red candle, together with natural materials. For snack you could enjoy blackcurrant juice and a piece of edible Yule Log!
Further stories and fact books about the Winter Solistice:-
The Sun Bread by Elisa Kleven
The Winter Solstice by Ellen Jackson
The Shortest Day: Celebrating the Winter Solistice by Wendy Pfeffer
The Return of the Light: Twelve Tales from Around the World for the Winter Solstice by Carolyn Edwards
Let’s Talk about Pagan Festivals by Siusaidh Ceanadac