My community is California Indian and our solstice celebrations are rooted in the traditional ways of the Chumash and Gabrielino/Tongva Tribes. For the record, I am not California Indian. I’m of mixed blood Cherokee, Delaware, and Seneca descent. Yet for 38 years I have lived near the ocean in an area that made up the traditional Chumash homeland. I hold the culture, traditions, and history of the Chumash people in my heart. For my Chumash friends this is their heritage, their landscape of time. And for all Native people Solstice is a time to honor the connection to our ancestors, to the rhythm of nature and our continuing deepening ties.
Anybody can begin a tradition of celebrating Solstice, and it’s alright to create personal traditions to make it your own. A meaningful ritual of celebrating Solstice can help us cultivate a deeper connection to nature and to all of the things that matter most to us. It’s a time for feeding the spirit and nurturing the soul. Prayers and rituals set forth a plan of life for the coming year, ceremonially turning back the sun toward its summer path.
The slap of wansaks’ — a musical instrument made from the branch of an elderberry — beats out a steady rhythm and a mix of laughing voices contrast with the drift of fog and the heavy surf pounding. Lanterns are lit against the darkening evening and a fire is built down on the beach where storytelling is taking place. Salmon is on the grill, potatoes are roasting, and the picnic table is loaded with more food.
We are celebrating solstice, an astronomical phenomenon marking the shortest day and the longest night of the year. For people throughout the ages — from the ancient Egyptians and Celts to the Hopi — midwinter has been a time of ritual, reflection, and renewal. Solstices happen twice a year, around June 21 and again around December 21. The date is not fixed, it varies; the December Solstice can take place on December 20, 21, 22, 23. While we usually think of the whole day as the Solstice, it actually takes place at a specific moment when the Sun is precisely overhead the Tropic of Capricorn.
The new solar year is traditionally honored with light and the earth’s seasonal foods, and it’s a time to gather with loved ones. Throughout history, celebrating the solstice has been a way to renew our connection with each other and with acts of goodwill, special rituals, and heightened awareness. Solstice is reserved for feeding the spirit and nurturing the soul. It’s a period for quiet reflection, tuning inward, slowing down and appreciating the day, the hour, and each moment.
While we don’t know how long people have been celebrating the solstice, we know that ancient cultures built stone structures designed to align with the sun at specific times, and in ancient times the winter solstice was immensely important because the people were economically dependent on monitoring the progress of the seasons. There was an emphasis on the fall harvest and storing food for winter.
Remembrance weighs heavy on my mind, as it does for most Native people seeking to affirm cultural identity in a high-tech world. For me there is comfort in being within a community who understand that we do not have to trade in our Indian values; celebrating Solstice with traditional customs carries ancient memory and cultural knowledge into our lives today.
We gather for a good meal together with storytelling, laughter, conversation, dance, and songs from the ancestors. Fire offerings of chia seeds, acorn flour, and berries are made, followed by prayer and ceremony. With the night sky, dark and beautiful above, I walk toward the sea and stand silent in respect to the ancient peoples who left the witness of their lives, their visions, the strength of their faith for us to ponder. The scent of sage hangs in the air. I fill my lungs with it, knowing it will permeate my body and cling to my soul as a reminder of what I can feel when we are all together.