A group of people make music and merriment near a roaring fire during the longest night of the year. Their mission: to await the sunrise and hold vigil through the darkness with feasting, celebration, and the burning of the sacred yule log. The winter solstice vigil–lasting upwards of 15 hours in the darkness can be one of the most intensive, challenging, and rewarding experiences. I’ve succeeded at one all-night vigil and failed at one all-night vigil (due to under-preparedness, see later in the post) and yet both have been moving experiences. This year, on the 21st, a group of us is going to attempt an outdoor all-night vigil. At this point, the weather looks good (not dipping below 30 degrees and clear) which is about the best Winter Solstice Vigil weather you can ask for!
In preparation for next week’s vigil, I thought I’d take the opportunity today to reflect on the art of preparing for vigil, doing the vigil, and offering some contextualization for this kind of initiatory work. For one, I’m going to do vigil with some folks who haven’t done it before (and I started writing this for them and realized how useful it would be for others). It’s a good idea to know what you are really in for with the Winter Solstice Vigil! But for two, I think its good information for anyone wanting to attempt such a vigil. I’ll cover the history of such a vigil, how to prepare physically and spiritually, what to do during your vigil, and offer simple rituals for both the setting and rising sun. While this post is primarily focused on outdoor vigils, I’ll also include some tidbits about alterations if you aren’t able to be outside for the all-night vigil.
Understanding and Defining “Vigil”
The term “vigil” itself gives us some understanding of the nature of this work. The term vigil derives from Latin vigilia, which means “wakefulness.” When we look at a few dictionary definitions of “vigil” we get the following kinds of phrases: “a devotional watching, or keeping awake, during the customary hours of sleep“; “a purposeful wakefulness”; or “a period of keeping awake during the time usually spent asleep, especially to keep watch or pray.” All of these definitions offer us useful understanding and insight into the nature of a vigil and why one would take it on. The Winter Solstice vigil is certainly a vigil–not usually so much of a solemn one, but one of wakefulness, watching, and sacredness where we work to tend our fires and eventually, welcome the sun back over the land.
The Winter Solstice: A Bit of History
Ceremony at the Winter Solstice reaches back, in some parts of the world, to pre-history. The basic premise is simple: before the days of modern electric lighting, humans lived more closely with the seasons. The days of darkness, where the earth seemed to stand still, needed humans’ help to bring the light back into the world. And so, much of the celebrations and feasting at the time was focused on light and life.
For example, Sí an Bhrú (New Grange), is a neolithic monument in Ireland that is at least 5,000 years old. New Grange is a large, circular earth chamber with a long stone entrance that is illuminated with the rays of the sunrise on the Winter Solstice. In other parts of the world, especially throughout Europe, the Winter Solstice was often celebrated with feasting and bonfires. Saturnalia, an ancient Roman festival of feasting, gift-giving, and revelry in honor of Saturn, was originally on Dec 17th, but later expanded to Dec 17th – Dec 23rd. Many Celtic peoples celebrated the “birth of the sun” or the “return of the sun” around the Solstice (and it is no surprise that evergreen boughs were used to celebrate these events, given evergreen’s connection to life and longevity). A yule log was burned, sometimes with feasting lasting days or weeks.
With the rise of Christianity in the 4th century, the Catholic Church proclaimed that the “Birth of Christ” was on Dec 25th to tie to older feasting and merriment traditions. So even today’s modern celebrations of “Christmas” hearken back to much older Winter Solstice traditions. Even today, we have houses lit up with lights, evergreen trees surrounded with lights and colorfully wrapped packages–all magical ways of raising up the sun.
All of this background is useful when thinking about the framing of a druid winter solstice ritual and vigil. The mood is not solemn here, although solemn work and initiatory work can certainly happen. Rather, this is a patient wait–through celebration and feasting–for the rising of the Solstice sun. Let’s now turn to some practical considerations before undertaking such a vigil.
Inner and Outer Preparation for the Solstice Vigil
Preparing for a winter solstice vigil requires both inner and outer preparation, which I’ll now describe. Without both considerations, an all-night vigil can be dangerous and/or unsuccessful. Such was the result of my first attempt at a winter solstice vigil. This was very early in my druid path, and I had really no idea what I was doing. I went to my sacred circle with my hat, gloves, and coat; a big pile of wood; a blanket; a tarp; and a thermos of hot tea; thinking that I would last the night and wait for the rising of the sun. For one, I had no idea how long this night was, nor how hard it was to hold vigil on my own. I quickly ran out of tea and wood, and a dwindling fire was not enough to keep the darkness and cold at bay. Sometime deep in the quiet night, I grew too cold and the fire grew too dim and I and went back inside to my warm bed. Better physical preparation could have substantially made this first attempt at a vigil more comfortable!
The general rule of thumb for these kinds of vigils is to over-prepare. That is, bring more warm clothes than you need, more food than you need, and more of any other supplies (like wood) than you think you’ll need.
Outer preparation: Common sense. The weather can be very variable in December and I ask that you please use common sense. A night when it is 35 and the sky is dumping freezing rain down on you is a good way to get hypothermia, not enjoy a winter solstice vigil. Tend to the weather carefully and only attempt this if you are sure you will be safe, warm, and dry. This is my take on it–some years are not good for vigil. I’ll still celebrate, but maybe I’ll light a candle in my window, or hold vigil in my house by the fire. There are other ways of celebrating this–and what I offer here is one of many approaches.
Outer Preparation: Clothing. If you have never spent a cold night outside before, you may not realize how difficult it is to stay in a single place and hold vigil when it is less than 30 degrees Fahrenheit (which is fairly common for the places I’ve lived). What this means, for you, realistically are several things: first, you need a lot of warm clothing, preferably natural fibers like wool or fur. Second, you need to make sure you stay covered throughout the night, including the part of you that is not going to be near the fire (read, extra wool blankets). Bring more than you think you will need, including a warm sleeping bag. All of these things can help you get through the cold night. Having another warm body (a dog, a snuggle partner) is also very helpful.
Outer Preparation: A Good Fire. There are a lot of ways of making fire, and making a blazing bonfire is not, actually, a good way to stay warm throughout the night. Big fires require a lot of wood, and a 14 or more hour fire will consume huge amounts of it, blasting heat in all directions. If there are enough folks to go the whole way around the fire, this is OK. But more commonly, there aren’t that many people willing to stay up all night in the darkness! If there are only a few of you, the better approach is to use bricks or stones and build up a reflective surface, then building the fire against that surface (see photo above). The photo shows is a simple fire setup that is small but that will reflect much more heat due to the fire bricks piled up behind. This would also stay lit in the rain and snow for much longer. If I had had this kind of setup during my first vigil, I likely would have made it longer into the night!
Outer Preparation: Hot Rocks: One of the strategies I learned about holding vigil has to do with hot rocks or hot bricks. The strategy is simple: have some old towels and stones or bricks available. I especially like a large flat stone that I can sit on. Putting the bricks/stones close to the fire to warm them, then wrapping them with a towel and sitting with them, really helps keep the cold at bay. A largish one makes an amazing seat at 2am in the cold!
Outer Preparation: Hot food and Drinks: Warm food and feasting are a necessary part of a Winter Solstice vigil, in the tradition of so many millennia of feasting and celebration around this time of year. I have a smallish iron cauldron to hang over the fire and a 12-quart dutch oven for the fire that I will be bringing to our ceremony to keep the hot liquids and foods flowing all evening for participants. Warm drinks of the alcoholic and non-alcoholic variety are necessary for a vigil. I don’t drink, I prefer warming herbal teas or cider mulled with cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and orange peels.
Outer Preparation: First Aid. It’s not a bad idea to have some general first aid materials available, especially if you are going to be doing your Winter Solstice vigil somewhere far away from civilization. Preferably, also it is a good idea to have someone along who knows how to administer basic first aid.
Outer Preparation: Seating. If you are using a chair sitting up, you will need to somehow wrap or protect your body against the chilly air from behind. Sitting on blankets or wrapping yourself in a sleeping bag can work well for this, especially for the back parts of you away from the fire. I prefer to sit on the ground, but that presents its own unique challenges as the ground obviously gets frozen and really cold this time of year. To sit on the ground for a period of hours successfully requires you to protect from cold and damp. I use a tarp as my base layer to protect from the damp. Then, I usually start with a sheep skin (which I have used for many ceremonies) and a few layers of blankets on top.
Inner/Outer Preparation: A Yule Log: The Yule Log tradition has many variations, but I like to use one for the Winter Solstice Fire Vigil. A Yule log should ideally come from someone’s property or be found, never bought. It is usually a tree or part of a tree, like a large stump. The large stump will burn through the night, and that’s part of the tradition. Usually, the log is somehow specially prepared and magically prepared; one older tradition has it wrapped in evergreen and doused in cider. In my grove events, we’ve painted it with natural dyes, wood burned the log, added springs of cedar, and have done many other things to honor the log before it is added to the Winter Solstice fire. The ashes of this log, and fire, are distributed to participants and are excellent for land blessings and tree planting ceremonies, among other things.
Inner Preparation: The Mindset: In advance, it is a good idea to set some mental limits to the event and understand when you shouldn’t or should end the vigil: if you can’t feel your fingers and toes, maybe its time to end the vigil. If you fall asleep, is that ok? What about if everyone else wants to go home and off to sleep? Give some thought to what you will or will not do, given certain circumstances, in advance, to help your preparation.
Inner Preparation: Facing the Darkness. The other part of this ceremony, as with fasting and many other kinds of initiatory work, is that you really do push your body and spirits in ways to their limits. Physically, the body may not be used to staying up all night, nor used to being in the cold for so long, or sitting by the fire for that many hours. Understanding, going into this, that this is a sacred ceremony is important. Also, you will be in the darkness for a long time. You may, deep in the night, have to face your own darkness. The darkness is darkest, and scariest, just before dawn. I will never forget the end of a vigil evening I spent in the woods by myself–I had never been so happy to see the sun rise, and I was so proud that I stuck it out till that moment. My own preparation for this kind of deep work involves sitting in darkness for some time for 30 min or so in the days leading up to the ceremony and doing other things to embrace the darkness this time of the year (you might look at my post from last Winter Solstice on embracing the darkness for many suggestions).
Opening the Vigil: A Ceremony
So if you are still reading, then we are ready for the Solstice eve to come and for the ceremony to begin! I have found that the vigil evening is essentially composed of three pieces: the vigil opening ceremony (which may be attended by more folks than those who are doing the all-night vigil), the vigil itself, which involves feasting, merriment, as well as quiet times, and the vigil closing ceremony, which honors the rising sun. I’ll take these each in turn, starting with the opening ceremony.
We will do our vigil opening ceremony just as the sun is setting, which for us, is about 5 pm on the night of the Solstice. Because we will have a larger group for this and for the first part of the vigil, but only some staying for the entire vigil, we keep this in mind as part of the ceremony. Note that we do not yet have our fire lit at the beginning of the ceremony (it is lit during the ceremony itself); this is so that we can spend some time in the darkness and the setting sun.
- Opening up a sacred space: As the darkness settles, we open a sacred space. In the druid tradition, this includes proclaiming the intent of the ceremony, declaring peace in the quarters, cleansing the space with the elements, making an offering to the spirits of the land, and casting the circle around the entire space where we will be.
- The Vigil Opening Ceremony. There are lots of things that you can do for this–here is what we are planning:
- We will begin by speaking of the Winter Solstice and, the history of how humans have celebrated this time with light and fire, and of the darkness and wheel of the year.
- We will all sit for a time in meditation, in the growing darkness, honoring silently the setting sun and preparing for the vigil of the evening.
- We will light our fire, honoring the light of this season and welcoming the sun to return after his long sleep.
- Once the fire is going, we ceremoniously add the yule log.
- In the spirit of the AODA tradition, we invoke the three currents (solar, telluric, and lunar) radiating a blessing out to the land.
- We begin the vigil, which starts with a feast and merriment.
It is sometimes the case that folks will want to join you for the opening (or for sunset and sunrise) but do not want to join you for the entire vigil for any number of reasons. These choices should be honored. Those who wish to stay will stay, and still, be supported by those who will not stay for the whole night. There should never be any pressure to stay, or not to stay, during such an intensive ceremony. A magical space (circle) should be prepared in such a way as people can pass in and out of it with ease, if this is to be the case. This will certainly be the case for our group this upcoming week.
The Vigil: Continued Ceremony
In my experience, there are really two ways you can go about your vigil: the time-honored tradition of feasting and merriment, using food, song, dance, and celebration to push back the cold and dark. The second is a time for powerful initiation into the deeper mysteries of the winter months, the darkness, and the time of cold and rest. I have found that both of these often happen in the same night during a winter solstice vigil. At some point, the feasting and merriment subsides and the darkness sets in, visions and waking dreams begin. Both are useful and powerful, and like the ebb and flow of the tide, both often happen in the course of the evening. Recognizing this, and honoring this, is part of the process.
Here are a few suggestions for how to keep awake and the vigil going:
Ritual feast: Holding a feast as part of the ritual is a wonderful way to keep everyone warm and happy. Ask folks to bring food that can either be heated up or that is kept warm. Our site doesn’t have electricity, so people will use blankets and such to keep food warm.
Eisteddfod festival: Holding a bardic Eisteddfod is a wonderful way to pass some of the night. The Eisteddfod includes any of the bardic arts: storytelling, music, dancing, and song. People take turns and, if you have enough people, a bardic competition can also take place.
Sharing your Life Story: Because you have 14+ hours, you have an opportunity for the deepest kinds of meaningful conversations with others around the fire. During my successful past vigil, one of the ways we managed the time was having each of us take an hour or so to tell the important parts of our life stories, the things that shaped us as human beings and put us on our spiritual paths. As the sun rose, after hearing the stories of everyone around the fire, and sharing my own story, I felt an extremely close connection to those.
Darkness walks. One of the other things I really like to do, especially if there is some moonlight, is to take a break from the fire and to simply walk the land, seeing what things look like in the darkness, and feeling its power fully.
Sleeping area. The alternative to flat out leaving the area is to have a “sleeping area” (for us, a hayloft with warm sleeping bags) for those who need a few hours of sleep. One variant on the vigil tradition is that its more like a watch: as long as someone is holding the space and tending the fire, that practice can be rotated. So some people may go off to sleep for a few hours and then spell off others. This is another good way to get through the evening and the vigil becomes a group effort.
The Ceremony of Welcoming Back the Sun
After the longest night, it is a blessing beyond all blessings to see the light rising again into the world. There are so many ways to welcome back the sun, and I will share a few of those here.
- A Norse tradition that I rather like for welcoming back the sun is ringing bells right as the sun rises over the hills/land. They ring clearly and brightly, welcoming the sun back.
- Drumming up the sun or playing music (if neighbors aren’t too close by)
- Letting the fire burn down as the sun rises–the fire was holding space for the sun, and as the sun rises, letting the sun regain that fire is a good way of ending the ceremony.
- Silent observation, observing the ever-changing landscape as the sun returns. Once the sun is up, you can then do any other ceremonial work.
- Honoring the sun with singing, dancing, and merriment – if you have anything left in you, this is also a wonderful idea.
- Making offerings to the sun and to bless the land. I have bottles of dandelion wine that I made for several years and like to offer the sun, the giver of life, some of this wine.
Now, you don’t have to do the whole vigil to wake up and honor the sun. There is nothing that says you can’t do the ritual at night, still get a decent night’s sleep, and then wake up before the sun to welcome it back to the land. So these can work regardless of whether or not you are doing the vigil.
Once you’ve honored the sun and observed its rising, you can thank the elements and close the sacred space. Likely, then, it is a good idea to go and get some sleep. Many solstice blessings to my readers–and may your dark nights be filled with merriment, inspiration, and joy!