Celebrating the Winter Solstice brings a fun and different way to enjoy a cold day with your little ones.
Winter officially begins in the Northern Hemisphere on December 21st. Here are some meaningful and fun ways to observe and celebrate the first day of winter with kids.
Winter’s cold and darkness can be mild or intense… the drag of a chilly brown landscape or the drama of very early sunsets and deep snowdrifts.
For many, winter begins to feel endless after a while. But at winter solstice—although those of us in northern climates still have plenty of cold to weather—the balance has shifted. We are moving toward the light.
WINTER SOLSTICE – A TIME OF EXTREMES
The word “solstice” brings together two Latin words: sol (sun) and sistere (to stand still). At the winter and summer solstices, the sun as seen from Earth appears to pause in its seasonal motion and then reverse its path.
The winter solstice is the day of the year when the sun seems to rise least high in the sky, following its shortest and lowest arc, and rises and sets at its southernmost point on the horizon. This is also the shortest day and longest night of the year. The difference in daytime hours is more noticeable at high latitudes—closer to the North or South Pole, farther from the equator. In Minnesota, the difference between winter and summer solstice is far from subtle: it would be more accurate to say that it hits you over the head.
In the northern hemisphere, our winter solstice occurs around December 21st each year. (In the southern hemisphere, this date marks the summer solstice; June 21st is their winter and our summer solstice.)
In many places and historical times, festivals of light have been observed right around the solstice, this rather dramatic peak of darkness. Winter festivals and personal observances of the solstice often involve these contrasting themes:
- light amidst darkness
- death and rebirth
- turning inward to reflect
- looking forward to new light and warmth
In pagan traditions, this solstice marks the rebirth of the Sun King or Sun God after a journey through the underworld. The northern hemisphere’s winter solstice occurs just days before Christians celebrate the birth of the Son, the light of the world. Festivals including Hanukkah, Shab-e Yalda, Soyal, Yule, Kwanzaa, and New Year’s Eve also hit upon themes of light, warmth, community, and hope amidst the winter darkness.
CELEBRATING THE WINTER SOLSTICE WITH KIDS
Play the “How tall is my shadow?” game
My favorite hands-on activity for understanding the seasons involves a yardstick and a whole year. Around noon on each equinox or solstice (or on the closest sunny day when you’re together), measure from your child’s toe to his or her shadow’s top. Have the child measure your shadow, too, and record the numbers.
After gathering data on all four holidays, you can ask your child to guess which shadow was longest, compare your shadows’ changing heights with your own heights.
When did it come up to your knee?
When was it about as tall as you?
When would it be too tall to stand up in your living room?
Discuss the changing angles of the sun. Read up on our solar system and the Earth’s seasons, and experiment with a flashlight and a globe.
Read winter-themed books together
These picture books are great family read-alouds for the winter solstice.
- The Shortest Day: Celebrating the Winter Solstice (Wendy Pfeffer) introduces the science, history, and cultural traditions surrounding the winter solstice. This book also includes projects and recipes to try at home.
- The intricate illustrations of “The Secret Staircase” (Jill Barklem) give life to this sweet midwinter celebration tale. The story can be found in the collection The Complete Brambly Hedge, which also includes a tale for each of the four seasons.
- The Tomten (Astrid Lingren), The Christmas Magic (Lauren Thompson), and Hanna’s Cold Winter (Trish Marx) bring our attention to the magic of winter’s light and darkness, cold and cozy warmth.
- Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins (Eric Kimmel), Celebrate Hanukkah (Deborah Heiligman), Lucia Morning in Sweden (Ewa Rydåker), Celebrate Christmas (Deborah Heiligman), Too Many Tamales (Gary Soto), and many other excellent picture books explore various cultures’ winter traditions.
Learn from snowflakes
Snow and ice are fascinating scientific phenomena, beautiful subjects for art, and hugely important factors in the Earth’s climate and ecology. The winter solstice is a wonderful time to learn about how water freezes, how our home planet has been shaped by glaciers, why the polar ice caps are melting, and what snowflakes look like up close (look up “snowflakes under microscope” or check out Kenneth Libbrecht’s gorgeous books).
It’s also a fun opportunity to make paper snowflakes, try to draw the patterns of frost on your windows, make snow people with play dough, or paint a snowy landscape. Those of us who spend the winter surrounded by snow can also get out there and play in it, possibly after reading Ezra Jack Keats’s classic The Snowy Day.
Welcome the darkness
My family’s solstice tradition is to turn out the lights in our home, light a few candles on the table, listen to peaceful music, and simply wait for day to turn to night. At sunset, we drink hot cocoa. The perfect soundtrack for our celebration is Maggie Sansone’s album Ancient Noëls.
Light a fire
A bonfire, a fire in the hearth, or tons of candles can remind us both of humans’ ability to create light in darkness (both literally and metaphorically) and of the sunshine in our not-too-distant future. Or, if you’d like to delve deeper into the spirit of the solstice, try learning about and carrying on the rich tradition of the Yule log.
Give & serve
Midwinter is a harsh time for many families. One beautiful way to mark the solstice is by participating in local efforts to help those living in poverty, brighten homeless children’s holidays, and work toward social justice.
Look forward, look back
This observance can take place with your family or alone. On paper, out loud, or simply in your thoughts, reflect on these questions or others that suit you better: What would you like the coming year to bring? What do you hope to leave behind with this winter’s darkness? What lesson or skill—big or small—have you learned this season, that you hope to carry forward with you? What lights burn strong in your life, even in darkness?
Watch the Stonehenge Live Stream Event
Most of these activities are screen free, but streaming the Stonehenge Winter Solstice sunrise event should be an exciting way to observe the first day of winter with kids. Each year hundreds of visitors travel to Wiltshire, England to stand amid the stones on this special day. The celebration was canceled for 2020, but you can view a live stream from the stones on the morning of December 21, 2020.
- Stretch into the Sun: Celebrating the Summer Solstice with Kids - June 6, 2018
- Here Comes the Sun: Celebrating the First Day of Spring (Vernal Equinox) - March 12, 2015
- Light Amidst Darkness: Celebrating the Winter Solstice with Kids - December 16, 2014