Winter Solstice Outdoor Activities For Kids
The winter solstice, also known as Yule, is the longest night of the year as well as an ancient pagan celebration rejoicing in the rebirth of the sun. While you’re probably gearing up for other types of celebrations, the winter solstice might just be the one day you need to take a break and celebrate nature with your family.
Freeze all the holiday craze and do something as simple as enjoy the season. Your kids certainly won’t be complaining to be out and about. I asked my girls how they would like to celebrate the winter solstice and they had a few ideas.
#1 Throw A Yule Log Bonfire
Celtic Druids started the tradition to burn a Yule log during 12 nights in winter to banish darkness and evil and to bring luck into the coming year. The tradition carried on in the middle ages as burning a Yule log during the 12 nights of Christmas. While nobody bothers anymore to drag a whole tree home to burn it in the hearth 12 days in a row after wine blessings, a bonfire is always a fun and family-friendly activity. So I heartily suggest that you go back to the roots, so to speak.
To throw a good Yule log bonfire party, try to find an outside area such as your yard, a local campsite or local open spaces that allow bonfires in the winter. Find the biggest log you can, this is in keeping with our pagan forefathers. Light one end of the log and let the kids roast a few marshmallows in celebration of the longest night of the year. I promise, they’ll be all up for it and adults can eat some Yule logs if they wish. The creamy chocolate cake version, that is.
#2 Eat “Good Camp Food” On Winter Solstice Night
Ever the camping lovers, my girls suggested that on winter solstice night, we should eat “good camp food” as described in the book Amelia’s Itchy-Twitchy Lovey-Dovey Summer At Camp Mosquito. Of course, we would need to cook everything on my dad’s outdoor barbecue or on a bonfire, where my dad burns dead leaves and branches. This way. it would be a real celebration. You can cut yourself some slack and use your own gas BBQ or worse comes to worse, the BBQ grill at your local park. Invite some friends and have fun!
Here is the menu. You will start sweetly, with a banana boat (split a banana split in half, fill with marshmallows and chocolate chips, wrap in foil and cook in the coals for 10 min.). You will then move on to the main course, sausages on a stick and a pocket stew (wrap your favorite selection of veggies in foil and stew in the fire’s embers for 30 min.). To finish with a spicy bang, you will savor pocket peach pies (sprinkle cinnamon and sugar on a canned peach, wrap in foil and bake in coals for 20 min.).
#3 Go On A Mistletoe Hunt
The same Druids cut the mistletoe that grew on oak trees and give it as a blessing. Oaks were seen as sacred and the winter fruit of the mistletoe was a symbol of life in the dark winter months. You may see mistletoe for sale at flower stands in winter but it’s a lot more fun to go on a mistletoe hunt with your kids. When I say “hunt”, I don’t mean that you should dress in white, find mistletoe, climb the tree with a curved blade and harvest it under the solstice moon. I just mean that you should take the kids out for a walk and spot as many balls of mistletoe as you can on trees, bringing home pictures of your winter solstice quest. The good news is that mistletoe is a very common tree parasite and that you are quite likely to find it if you live in the northern hemisphere in winter.
Find a park, orchard or forest with the following trees to increase your chances:
apple trees, oaks, limes, poplars, hawthorns, alders, ash, birch, box elder, cottonwood, locust, silver maple, walnut, and white fir.
If you stumble upon the American mistletoe species Phoradendron (which aptly means “thief of the tree”), try this if you can. The kids will love it. According to a USGS scientist, if you put ripe berries in a paper bag and shake it, it sounds just like popping popcorn. Let me know if you succeed, I’d love to hear about it!
#4 Enjoy A Luminaria Walk After Dark
Some parks, like Muir Woods National Monument in California, celebrate the winter solstice by opening their trails after dark and lining the path with paper luminarias. As you walk under the tall coastal redwoods, the effect is quite magical. Walking in the dark simply isn’t the same as walking in broad daylight. For kids, night walks hold an additional element of mystery as natural shadows can become different things with a pinch of imagination. Look for luminaria walks in your area.
In the U.S., the following places organize winter solstice luminaria walks:
- Mystic (CT),
- Wilmington (DE),
- Shohomish (WA)
- Muir Woods (CA)
Alternatively, you can also organize your own DIY Winter Solstice Luminaria Walk following this guide prepared by the rangers at Muir Woods National Park. It includes instructions on making luminarias, solstice wreaths and solstice crowns, tips on what to drink and the kids’ favorite part, tips to create your own shadow puppet show!
#5 Have A Neolithic Winter Solstice
Newgrange is a neolithic tomb in Ireland where hundreds of people gather each year for a unique winter solstice phenomenon. At dawn between December 18 and December 23, the rising sun shines through the burial mound tunnels and into the main sacred chamber, resulting in a ray of light shaped like a pointed arrow. The chamber is so small that only 120 people are chosen by lottery, a very exclusive and spiritual affair. We visited Newgrange with our girls during the fall and while we didn’t have the winter solstice ray of light, we did enjoy a winter solstice light simulation that was extraordinary. The 19 meters of stone tunnels leading to the main chamber are built on uneven ground and up a hill. The ray of light is indeed quite mystical, even when simulated with electric lights during guided visits. How people knew, 5,000 years ago, that a handful of mornings a year the sun would go through the tunnels into the round chamber, is beyond me. Even if you can’t go to Ireland, you can watch this phenomenon as a live webcast (if the weather conditions are right).
If you live in the United Kingdom, check out this list of stone circles where you can let the kids run loose for a very neolithic winter solstice.
What else do you do with your kids to celebrate the winter solstice?