I always wondered why so many religions celebrated a festival of light around this time of year. Then I met Sun Bear, moved west and was introduced to the time of Earth Renewal, which really is the origin of all these other festivals. I was taught that tribal peoples honored the earth at the winter solstice because they lived close to the land and knew it was important for humans to work with all of the elements of earth and sky. They did not take life for granted and assume the sun would always rise even if people did not thank the sun for its important part in the life cycle. No sun meant no more life on earth. When I learned about this philosophy, everything about the holidays meant something more to me. They were not just a time of materialism, of asking. They were also a time of giving thanks for the many gifts nature gives to us each day. Ideally this is something we would do daily, but earth renewal can give us a reminder that we need to thank nature for light, for life.
According to Sun Bear’s teachings, the ceremonies done before and on the winter solstice were the most important seasonal ceremonies of the year because they allowed life on earth to continue. On Vision Mountain we would cleanse to prepare for the solstice by fasting, and by cleaning all of our homes both physically and spiritually. On the longest night of the year we would truly remind ourselves of the importance of the sun by putting all the fires to sleep. Since we depended upon woodstoves for warmth, this made for a long, cold night when we deeply realized the importance of the sun and its gift, fire. We would clean out the stoves and the fire pits, and all this time we would be praying hard for the sun, for light and warmth to return.
Before dawn on the day of the solstice we would start a fire in the old way, with sticks and tinder, not matches or lighters, hoping it would come to life if and when the sun returned. Fortuitously, each time we did it that happened. Then we would take burning sticks from that fire to light the stoves in our homes reminding us of how our daily comfort was connected to the sun. When the rocks in the original fire pit were heated, we would go into the sweat lodge to complete our spiritual cleansing.
After the sweat ceremony (and those four days of fasting) we would have a ceremonial meal. This was a modest meal consisting of berries we had canned in summer to honor the fruit; corn, beans and squash, the three sister crops, to honor the vegetables; and meat we had hunted or been given, usually venison that had been road killed, to honor our animal relations. Before we ate we would make a spirit plate consisting of some of everything and would put it out on the land to share with all those who dwell in the spirit world, as we did on Thanksgiving and other feast days.
We would go on to have ceremonies to honor the medicine wheel, the gift of the pipe, and the gift of community. Then we would have a really bountiful, delicious feast and a giveaway. Giveaways are times when you express your gratitude for all life has given you by sharing your possessions with others. Our Earth Renewal ceremonies were wonderful times, remembered by the many people who attended them.
So what do I do now, living far from Vision Mountain? I remember all the ceremonies we performed and do small segments of them with my family and friends. Through this blog I invite you to share in this special time of year as you choose, no matter which festival of light you celebrate. Believe me, taking some time to thank the earth mother and father sun is a wonderful antidote to the commercialism and busyness of the holiday season.
To me, the most important part of celebrating the winter solstice is to thankfully acknowledge that you are part of the cycle of life, dependent upon all your relations. These are not just human relations. We need the gifts of the minerals, the plants, the animals, and the spirit world for our lives to continue. Winter solstice is a good time to realize and acknowledge that in whatever way feels right to you. A simple “thank you all my relations” is a good way to begin. If that leads you to want more, here are a few simple ceremonies you can perform.
You can take a few minutes on the day of the solstice to meditate, contemplate or pray for the circle of life to continue. Think of your part in this circle, and how you can participate more fully in the year to come.
If you want to do something more you can cleanse yourself and your home, physically, spiritually or both. Yes I know the holiday season is not a good time for a thorough house cleaning (unless your parents or in-laws are coming to visit). Perhaps just clean up one area that has been annoying you. You can spiritually cleanse your house in a number of ways. First, crack open a window so all the bad energy can get out. My preferred method of cleansing is by smudging, which is using the smoke from smoldering herbs, usually sage, sweet grass and cedar. However, I realize many of you don’t have access to these, or know the way to smudge. I do remind you that I wrote a good description of smudging in my last blog “Thanksgiving Memories from Vision Mountain”. There are also smokeless smudge sprays available in Native or earth oriented shops and these work well. If you can’t get that consider a cedar or evergreen room spray. If that thought is overwhelming, use water or just walk around the room fanning it with a magazine and putting your focus on cleaning out all of the negative energies from the past year so you can start this new cycle as fresh and positive as possible. Whatever you use, walk around each room of your house gently cleansing and paying particular attention to corners, windows and doorways. It is the intention that matters more than the materials.
When you have whatever feast you participate in, take a moment before you eat to thank the earth and all of your relations for the gifts they give you each day. You can do this silently if that is most appropriate and comfortable. If your situation allows, consider putting out a spirit plate containing a little of all the foods you are about to enjoy. In most parts of the world some of your relations (spirit, feathered or furred) will be happy to join in the feast with you.
Think of all the things with which you have been blessed and find some way to give away some of your blessings. I like to find an angel tree and give gifts to people who might not have any otherwise. Toys for Tots are a great way to giveaway as is providing food or money to local food banks. Try to give something away to someone you don’t know. And accept gracefully if someone makes a giveaway to you.
Feel free to incorporate any or all of these ceremonies into this time of renewing yourself and renewing the earth. Have a beautiful winter solstice and let us all hope the sun returns so the life cycle can continue.