Today we celebrate the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, marking the first day of the winter season. Typically falling between the 21st and 23rd of December each year, the Winter Solstice ushers in the promise of longer days and rekindles our gardening spirit for yet another year.
(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on December 22, 2007. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments. We hope you enjoy it as we count down to Christmas.)
"In the depths of winter I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer". Albert Camus
Winter Solstice, the beginning of winter, is when the sun is farther away from the earth than any other time of the year for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere. In contrast, this date marks the Summer Solstice for those living in the Southern Hemisphere.
Ancient civilizations had limited knowledge of nature's cycles and the changing positions of the sun and earth, fearing that the waning sun was disappearing, never to return! The Winter Solstice was celebrated with feasts and ceremonies that included bonfires or burning of a whole tree through the night, believing the fires would guarantee the return of the sun in the morning.
One of these ancient ceremonies, Saturnalia, was named for Saturn (the Roman god of sowing), and was sometimes referred to as the Festival of Lights. The Romans believed these fire ceremonies would "insure the return of the sun's warmth in time for spring planting"  and "safeguard the health of the crops sown in winter". Remnants of charred wood from the fires were saved to use for starting the fire the following year and ashes from the fires were spread in the fields, confident that this ritual would bring good luck for the new year's harvests.
In later years, these celebrations would continue for twelve days and were called the Yule Festival or Yuletide (turning of the sun) - now commonly celebrated as the twelve days of Christmas. Hence, the logs or trees that were burned became known as Yule Logs.
Oak was the most common wood used for these Yule Logs. However, other woods  were used as well and were thought to:
(Aspen) invoke an understanding of the grand design (Birch) signify new beginnings (Holly) inspire visions and reveal past lives (Oak) promote healing, strength and wisdom (Pine) signify prosperity and growth
Today, many people continue to celebrate the Winter Solstice with bonfires or the traditional burning of a Yule Log. However, the Yule Log has now become more of a common ritual on Christmas Eve versus a celebration of the Winter Solstice, possibly due to the disappearance of fireplaces in many of our homes today. The traditional Yule Log has now been transformed into decorations for our holiday table with small sections of logs adorned with candles and greenery or imitated with log-shaped cakes (Bûche de Noël - French for 'Christmas Log') and commonly served as dessert with Christmas dinner.
Is the original celebration of burning Yule Logs for the Winter Solstice becoming a dying tradition? Perhaps - however there are clever options available for those of you without fireplaces. An assortment of Yule Log DVDs are available to help create your very own 'virtual' burning of the Yule Log on television or computer screens! A soundtrack of holiday favorites is included for your listening pleasure while enjoying the crackling sounds of your Yule Log 'fire'.
Just call me old-fashioned...I'll steer clear of the 'virtual' experience and celebrate the Winter Solstice with a new tradition of my own. My tradition will include lighting a Yule Log in the fireplace to enjoy its warmth and comfort on this, the shortest day of the year. I'll read my gardening magazines and peruse garden catalogs looking for inspiring ideas and plants for my gardens in the new year. And...I'll raise my cup of cheer to toast the Winter Solstice while singing along with David Mallett's "Garden Song". Click here to join me, won't you?
"Inch by inch, row by row Gonna make this garden grow All it takes is a rake and a hoe And a piece of fertile ground
Inch by inch, row by row Someone bless these seeds I sow Someone warm them from below 'Till the rain comes tumbling down.
Pulling weeds and pickin' stones; Man is made of dreams and bones Feel the need to grow my own, 'Cause the time is close at hand.
Grain for grain, sun and rain, Find my way in nature's chain Tune my body and my brain, To the music from the land.
Plant your rows straight and long, Temper them with a prayer and song. Mother Earth will make you strong If you give her love and care.
An old crow watching hungrily From his perch in yonder tree. And in my garden I'm as free As that feathered thief up there.
Inch by inch, row by row Gonna make this garden grow All it takes is a rake and a hoe And a piece of fertile ground
Inch by inch, row by row Someone bless these seeds I sow Someone warm them from below 'Till the rain comes tumbling down."
Wishing you a Happy Winter Solstice, Merry Christmas and a prosperous New Year in your garden!
Images, courtesy of:
Earth-lighting-winter-solstice by Przemyslaw Idzkiewicz Wikimedia®
Thank you Louise (venu209) for allowing me use of your festive fireplace photo!
My gardening journey began when I discovered perennials in the 80’s, prompting endless trips to the library to educate myself. In 1999, I left the dreary winters of Maine, moved to Virginia and fulfilled my dream of working with plants. Today, I’m a partner with my husband in the nursery he established in 1981. I’m known to test the limits of plants that “shouldn’t” grow in Zone 6. As a hopeless ‘Hortaholic’, I share the sentiment of Tony Avent, “I consider every plant hardy until I have killed it myself...at least three times”! I’m looking forward to sharing my gardening passion with everyone.