A Winter Solstice Story Circle

On the Sunday evening after our Lucia Party, my co-hostesses and their families lingered around our sparkling Yule tree into the darkening evening. We had spent the weekend together, and they weren’t quite ready to return to their individual homes. We knitted, napped, snacked on leftovers, and read stories to each other from my collection of children’s Yuletide books. (One of my favorites is Susan Jeffers’ illustrated version of Robert Frost’s Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.)

As we shared, passing each book around the circle so everyone could take a turn reading, I remembered Christina Baldwin’s challenge to “be a storycatcher!” at the retreat I went to last month.

Christina is quite eloquent on the topic, as you know if you’ve read her book Storycatcher: Making Sense of Our Lives through the Power and Practice of Story. She writes:

Story is a map.
     The map that gets one person through gets the next person through.
          We depend on story to learn from each other, 
               to inspire values-based action, 
                    to imagine the new ways forward.

Storytelling is part of the solution to the world’s ills. It’s a way that we connect to each other, learn to care about each other, and support each other.

So I decided to try it. I asked each person to share a favorite Yuletide memory from childhood, and in the second round, a favorite Yuletide food (either from childhood or now). I loved the stories that emerged. It turned out that several of us had wonderful memories of the powdered-sugar-covered cookies I knew as Snowballs, and others knew as Russian Tea Cakes. (Now I’m thinking about making a gluten-free version!)

I remembered that my mother and I made Snowballs specifically as a gift for my Uncle Bud, because they were his favorites. And later on we made peanut brittle for my dad — that was his favorite. I also remembered the decorated Jordan Almonds my mother would always buy at Bullock’s Department Store on Wilshire Boulevard’s Miracle Mile. Those would always be in my stocking on Christmas morning, all decorated up to look like gnomes and tin soldiers, in a fancy box with silver foil. I loved those.

My dad would make fresh-squeezed orange juice every Christmas morning, and we would drink it before opening any presents. There would always be an orange at the very bottom of my stocking, too. Even though oranges grew on trees right in our backyard there in Los Angeles, my parents kept the tradition alive. When they were children growing up in Oklahoma and West Virginia, oranges were a rare delicacy at Christmastime. They each got oranges in their stockings, and so did I, along with a bit of family lore about what it was like to be part of a huge family during the Depression, when presents for all the kids were hard to come by.

I was talking to my son and granddaughter the other day over Skype, and Steve was asking 4-year-old Gracie what she thought would be in her own Christmas stocking this year. She said:  “An orange!!!!!”  So we talked about the family tradition and where it came from — because he, of course, remembers getting an orange in his own childhood Christmas stockings.

Now I know that oranges, those “golden apples of the sun,” are sun-symbols and tokens of prosperity at Yuletide. (I learned this from my friend Waverly Fitzgerald, of course!)

I loved telling and listening to those stories on that quiet Sunday evening. We went around the circle more than once, as memory led on to memory.

Now, I would add another round to the first two, and ask another question:

What is a favorite memory of stillness and solitude at Yuletide (from childhood or more recently)?

I asked this question of the folks who took my “Gaian Soul Practices for Yuletide/Midwinter” e-course, as the first week’s theme was all about seeking out times of stillness and solitude during this busy, social season.  One of the women in the course shared this memory with us:

I was raised in a remote corner of northeastern Washington (20 miles from the British Columbia border). There was very deep snow in the winter! From the time I was a young girl, I loved walking in the gloaming each evening. Really drawn to that liminal space (and still am!!). I have distinct memories of walking down the freshly plowed road after days of heavy snow at dusk. The mill whistle blew its lonely and haunting whistle into the brisk, fresh air… and there was no other sound except for more snowflakes beginning to fall — and they were so icy cold that they “pinged” against the sleeves of my blue coat. This memory is embedded in my marrow bone… Thanks for helping to stir this memory that fills me with longing and sweet memory!

Ah, I just love hearing that!

I invite you to share this practice with your friends and family this Yuletide, and to share a story or two here, too.  I’d love to hear some of your stories in the comments below.

  • What is one of your favorite Yuletide memories from childhood?
  • What is one of your favorite Yuletide foods (now, or from childhood)?
  • What is one of your favorite memories of stillness and solitude at Yuletide (from childhood or more recently)?


8 thoughts on “A Winter Solstice Story Circle

  1. This is lovely ~ the words and the pictures.

    I too prized the orange at the bottom of the sock as a child. I just bought two oranges at the co-op and I selected them slowly, sniffing and weighing for the juiciest specimen.

    Thank you,

  2. Ah! Thanks for the memories. I too received oranges (though living in Southern CA) and put one in my daughter’s stocking every year. And I miss Jordan almonds! love those, especially the colors as much as the crunch of candy in the mouth. I made Kourabiedes for my solstice party, my favorite cookies, and as we ate them we talked about similar cookies. I believe they are similar to Snowballs and Russian Tea Cakes. My mother made them and called them Mexican Wedding Cakes.

    1. Oh how interesting that you and I both grew up in southern California, and we both have luscious memories of Jordan almonds and oranges! Amy (in the previous comment) also recalls the orange at the bottom of the stocking . . . so it must be a much more widespread tradition than I had realized. Going right back to your article on oranges as the Golden Apples of the Sun, yes? It would be fun to compare recipes for all these cookies too, and see how similar & different they are.

  3. Joanna, this is a wonderful approach to solstice, and continues the storytelling we did in family circle at Dia de Los Muertos. The old Persian tradition of winter solstice is called “yalda” and according my my hairdresser is a night that families gather together and tell stories late into the night. They have special foods for the night – bowls of pomegranate seeds! watermelon! – but she says the stories are the best part that she has loved her whole life.

  4. I always got an orange in my stocking, too, but it was usually on the Feast of St. Nicholas. My mom’s family are German Catholic, so we always hung stockings on Dec. 5, and also usually included was a wooden ornament of some sort, chocolate and some small treat. Christmas Eve was usually spent at my maternal Grandmother’s house, with lots of festive food and time with my cousins, aunts and uncles. My mom and I lived with my Grandma from the time I was 10 until (for me) when I went to college, and I miss her terribly at this time of year. We would go to church on Christmas Eve, too. Sometimes at the church where my mom went when she was a child, St. Joseph’s. I like to think that the Mary grotto there was my first experience with the Goddess 🙂 Christmas day was either spent at home, or we would travel 2 hours from Louisville to central KY to my paternal grandmother’s farm. I have very fond memories of that house and the walnut trees and snowy hills surrounding it. I always felt so close to nature when I stayed down there. They would have log fires going in the fireplace, and grandma often had lots of festive greenery in the house. I can conjure the smell of her house in winter in my mind right now 🙂 She was a great cook, too, and canned her own food. Sadly my grandparents had to sell the farm when I was about 16, as it was too much for them to care for. A professor from Centre College lives there now and he and his wife were nice enough to let my husband and I visit a few years ago so that I could show James the house. He has a pic online: https://web.centre.edu/miles/images/MVC-008S.JPG

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