Gardening Etcetera: A celebration of the not-so-gloomy midwinter | Local
For gardeners and farmers in colder climates, the winter solstice should be one of the most anticipated days on the calendar. It represents the annual journey from darkness and cold to light and heat. In short, it’s a celebration of the return to spring. For me, it is synonymous with the cultivation of green objects.
In the northern hemisphere, the winter solstice is the longest night and the shortest day of the year. It can be depressing to be in that darkest time, but it used to be a cause for rejoicing as it meant that from then on the sun would show its face longer. For 2021, the winter solstice falls on December 21 and with the disappointing and dry winter so far, I am particularly looking forward to it.
Some studies believe that humans have celebrated the winter solstice since the Neolithic period, which would have been at the end of the Stone Age, around 10,000 years ago. This means that humans understood the movements of the seasons fairly quickly and noticed a pattern! Monuments, such as Stonehenge, are oriented to align with the winter solstice sunset. Other parts of Scotland and Ireland also have monoliths, supporting the theory that these structures were used to ritually capture the sun on this shortest day of the year.
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It’s a wonder how these structures could have been built so long ago to calculate the exact time of the seasonal change, but they do. Not to mention that they also capture the summer solstice. And although the last time Stonehenge was likely used by ancient humans was the Iron Age, the placement of the stones is still pretty accurate.
What’s even more amazing is that many other cultures around the world have also calculated and anticipated the Winter Solstice. Most considered it a season to worship their solar deities. The Incas before the Spanish conquest fasted for three days and then used a mirror to capture the dawn of the solstice sun to start a fire. It has been called many names by these various cultures, but the name
Midwinter is my favorite because it reminds me to use the time for thinking, slowing down, and peaceful interaction with nature itself. In historic times, this was also how the Solstice was treated, although that didn’t mean it wasn’t also a time to get together and feast. And that either for us.
Here are a few ideas gardeners might find particularly appealing to celebrate midwinter. First of all, how about putting amaryllis or white paper bulbs to brighten up your home? Second, make a list of all the plants you might want to grow in the future. Better yet, pull out catalogs of bulbs, tubers and seeds to make you dream of how spectacular your garden will be in summer. If possible, place your catalog orders before January.
Mapping my spring and summer plantings is one of my favorite mid-winter activities. Or at least that’s right after going over the seeds I collected in the fall and deciding who to share them with. For the really ambitious, a seed swap in the middle of winter would be a wonderful holiday. Some mundane but no less important tasks are mulching any flower beds that you may have missed in the fall, cleaning up any seeds you have kept and storing them away from rodents, and finally, polishing and sharpening your tools.
A final tradition, I would say, that bear emulation comes from Japan, where the solstice is called Toji and is considered a holy time for farmers. They welcome the return of the sun, essential to their harvests, by lighting bonfires and having a feast of rice and red beans. Every December 22, Mount Fuji is lit with these pockets of light to encourage the sun.
With the hustle and bustle of the November and December holidays, it’s always good for me to remember the midwinter tradition – a tradition that humans have held for eons – and that is to slow down, to do the point and remember that there are lighter days to come. Truly, there is light after darkness. Through the darkness there is again a path to the light.
Jackee Alston has been gardening and cultivating in the Flagstaff and Verde Valleys since 2005 and 2015, respectively. She is co-editor of the section Gardening, Etc., Maître Jardinière Coconino, founder of Grow Flagstaff! Seed Library, Development Specialist for the Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance, children’s author, and mother of three remarkable humans. She honors those whose land she now inhabits, including the Hohokam, Hopi, Western Apache, Pueblo, and Dine peoples.