Plants of the Winter Solstice

Celebrating Symbols of the Solstice

January 29, 2019
Mistletoe Berries


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The winter solstice falls on December 21, marking the official start of winter. It is the shortest day and longest night of the year.

After the solstice, the days will start to get longer, and as the old adage says,”When the days lengthen, the cold strengthens.”

Even so, I appreciate seeing a brighter western horizon when I get out of work in the evening. The sun begins its climb toward summer and each day brings us one day closer to spring.


Nearly every ancient culture had myths surrounding the return of light after the winter solstice. As the sun coursed lower in the sky, it seemed to ancient peoples that the sun might be disappearing forever.

To encourage the sun to return, bonfires were built, gifts for the gods were hung from the branches of pine trees, and evergreen plants were brought indoors to symbolize everlasting life. If it sounds a bit like Christmas, many pagan ceremonies were overlaid with Christian holidays.


Plants of the Winter Solstice

Certain trees and plants were important to the celebration of the solstice both as symbols and as decorations:

  • Evergreens were a symbol of immortality, since they were the only trees to stay green when all the others lost their leaves.
  • Yews represented the death of the old year and were a connection between this world and the next.
  • Oak trees were revered for being long-lived. Even though they were not evergreen, they were symbols of eternal life and considered a source of protection, strength, and endurance. In Celtic tradition, the entire trunk of an oak tree was kept burning for 12 hours on the eve of the solstice. If the fire did not go out, it meant the household would be protected and have an abundant harvest and good health in the coming year. A piece of that log was saved and used to start next year’s fire because, as the old log was consumed by the flames, any problems from the old year were thought to go with it.
  • Rosemary, an evergreen shrub in warm climates, was called the herb of the sun.
  • Birch trees symbolized new beginnings.



  • Ivy symbolized marriage, faithfulness, and healing and was made into wreaths and garlands to decorate during the winter.

Celebrating the Solstice

December’s full Moon, which will be visible on the night of the winter solstice, is aptly called the Full Cold Moon. If there are no clouds to obscure it from view, it should shine with all the intensity of the Sun and be bright enough for trees to cast shadows.

In Celtic tradition, one sacred place to be visited during the solstice time is an open area or hill that affords a view of the horizon in all directions. What better way to celebrate than to bundle up and climb to the top of the tallest hill? This is not a time to be hibernating; get outside and connect with the natural world in all its glorious seasons!

Learn more about the Winter Solstice.

Do you celebrate the solstice? Tell us about your traditions in the comments below.

About This Blog

Get inspired by Robin Sweetser’s backyard gardening tips and tricks. Robin has been a contributor to The Old Farmer’s Almanac and the All-Seasons Garden Guide for many years. She and her partner Tom have a small greenhouse business and also sell plants, cut flowers, and vegetables at their local Farmer’s Market.

2019 Garden Guide

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Overlying Holidays

I love the information about the plants and what they have traditionally stood for. Thank you for sharing that! I do have a concern though, regarding some information.
To quote the article above, "many pagan ceremonies were overlaid with Christian holidays." This wording implies that pagan holidays came after Christian ones, when in fact Christian holidays were formed long after pagans had been celebrating Yule for centuries. It is actually Christian holidays that were overlaid with pagan ones, especially for timing. (For example, many believe that Christ was born in either spring or summer instead of winter.) On Wikipedia, if one looks up "Paganism and Christianity" there is a lot of good information available there.

Ah, the Solstice!

More than Christmas itself, the Winter Solstice is the highlight of my year, celebrated with stargazing in the fallow hay field behind our house, decorations of pine boughs and brilliant red hackberries from the yard, and hot cocoa by the fire as I meditate on the year just past and find new hope for the future. It's such a sacred time... I'm glad it's overlaid with Christian traditions, because then I don't look quite so strange out there in the field in the dark-!


We aways go to the beach near our house. There is a brackish pond on one side and Long Island sound on the other with Connecticut across the water. We have a 360 degree view all around and to stand between "two waters' under the moon - or even at the dark of the moon when the stars are most brilliant - is a splendid experience. Artemisia grows wild at the edges of the pond and the cold salt air with the sweet-medicinal scent of artemisia is delicious!


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