It's not easy to ignore Christmas.
Whether you like it or not, Christmas is everywhere. Propagated by the mass media and often conjuring up such a frenzy of need and expectation that many people end up disappointed and stressed-out. I often wonder how many people still feel like Christmas is a delightful time of year that they look forward to, rather than are obligated to?
I was raised in a Christmas-less household, which was a bit complicated in the US, especially as a child. Though our extended family would send X-mas gifts and I knew about Santa and his reindeer, the real magic for me came during the Winter Solstice.
Dec. 21st has been celebrated since ancient times in the Northern Hemisphere, long before the rise of modern-day Christmas. Roman, Scandinavian and other pagan traditions feasted and celebrated the darkest night of the year and the return of the sun. In fact, many of the traditions associated with Christmas today were adopted from earlier solstice customs and woven in to what we now know as Christmas.
In the Buddhist-American tradition of my youth, around the time of the Winter Solstice we celebrated Children's Day, a holiday created in 1978 by the late Chö gyam Trungpa Rinpoche. The great bloggist Waylon Lewis has done an excellent job of recounting the history of Children's Day for those who are interested.
But the evening of the Solstice itself was where the enchantment happened, a very important time for self-reflection and marking the changing of the season. Our house was lit only with candles, as friends and neighbors gathered to be together on the longest night of the year. During the gathering, people spoke about the year past and the year ahead, everyone lost in contemplation.
Little scraps of paper were provided for everyone to write on. Each person would take two. On one we would write the aspect of the year past that we needed to let go of. For many, this was about grudges they were holding, loss they had experienced or negativity that they were carrying around and needing to shed. On the other piece of paper we would write our aspirations for the coming year, our wishes that we hoped to fulfill.
A fire was lit in the yard and near the end of the evening we would all bundle up and head outside to encircle the flame. One by one we would read our notes aloud (or sometimes just to ourselves) and throw them into the fire ... first letting go of the past, then looking to the brightness of the future.
I still do this each year and look forward to the time it provides to take stock of my life ... what I need to cast off and what I hope to achieve. Anyone can do it, as it is not rooted in any religion or creed, but in taking a moment to recognize the wonder of our spinning planet, our powerful sun and the changes we wish to make in our lives.
I hope that by sharing this tradition with my readers it will inspire you to create your own solstice traditions and bring back some magic to a time of year that has become all too focused on material gain.
Happy Winter Solstice everyone, may all your wishes come true!
Kiri Westby is a featured contributor to Ed and Deb Shapiro's new book, BE THE CHANGE, How Meditation Can Transform You And The World, with forewords by HH Dalai Lama and Robert Thurman.