20 Things to Do on the Shortest Day of the Year

It’s Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year. We wake up to the dark; we drive home in the dark. We have vanquished the autumn leaves, laid to rest the garden beds, and wait for the seed catalogue to arrive. There is little else to do. We welcome the shortest day of the year-winter solstice-one that goes largely unnoticed by most. However, for us gardeners it is a pivotal day of the year. We have surrendered completely to the ways of nature. We understand that many plants will not bloom unless triggered by a stretch of longer nights. We understand that the dark has its use.

This day signifies the return of light and life. We protect what we have and plan for the next year. We take time for reflection, resolution, and renewal. And we are thankful for the abundant year, the preserved harvest, and the cycle of seasons.

The word solstice means the “sun stands still”. The ancients watched the sun sink low in the sky, then slow, and appear to stop. They feared the sun would disappear and take with it light and warmth. They feared for their survival. To encourage the sun’s return, they celebrated with feasts and burned bonfires throughout the night. Later, they celebrated in the knowledge that the sun would return and the dormant earth would come back to life. Today, many of the winter solstice traditions have become common rituals on Christmas Eve-lighting the tree, yule logs in the fireplace (or on the television screen).

On December 21st, with only 9 ½ hours of light, the countdown to spring begins. To celebrate the balance of dark and light, try one or more of the following ideas:

1. Watch the sunrise

2. Harvest kale and cabbage from the winter garden

3. Take stock of the garden; clean up any debris and survey the bare bones of the garden to see if there are any improvements to be made

4. Winter sow perennials and hardy annuals: If a plant is hardy in your zone, you can plant the seed anytime in winter. Soak the seeds and surface sow instead of covering with an inch of soil. Try foxglove, sweet pea, delphinium, hollyhocks, or…

5. Plant a tree as a symbol of faith and growth for the new year

6. Mulch your garlic so the weeds don’t become heavy

7. Fill orange halves with peanut butter and birdseed for the winter creatures

8. Fill vases with sprigs of holly, once used in winter solstice rituals

9. Coax bulbs into bloom: place bulbs in a brown paper bag and tuck into the refrigerator’s crisper draw for 8-14 weeks. Keep your fruit on the counter during this time as fruit produces ethylene gas that will kill the flower inside the bulb. After the chill period, pot the bulbs, place on the window sill, water, and wait for the blooms.

10. Read notes from the last season to recall successes and failures in the garden

11. Start the calendar by marking the previous year’s last frost day, first frost date, seasonal garden tasks, when to start seeds, when to transplant, when to divide, when to prune, and any other task related to your garden

12. Fill a journal with photos of the year in the life of your garden and add notes

13. Take an afternoon walk and leave a trail of birdseed

14. Decorate with candles, evergreens, and pine cones

15. Welcome friends and strangers to share your food and warmth

16. Serve borscht (cabbage soup) with bread and apple cider

17. Turn off all things electronic

18. Tell stories around a fire

19. Gift friends with a small rosemary (aka herb of the sun) plant, used in early solstice celebrations

20. Watch the first winter sunset

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