Simple solstice ritual for the hectic holiday season.

Sometimes, I refer to myself as a “lapsed pagan.” This is a play on the term “lapsed catholic,” which refers to a person who was raised catholic but doesn’t really practice anymore, and often only attends Mass on special occasions like Christmas and Easter. In much the same way, I was raised by my mother in the Wiccan traditions, and while I don’t spiritually identify purely as Wiccan anymore, I still feel drawn to the major holidays, and I make an effort to acknowledge them in the wheel of the year.

A celebration of lights.

My mother was a scholar of religion and mythology from a very early age, and she was drawn to the Wiccan religion when she was a teenager in Phoenix, Arizona, in the 1970s. She was very passionate about her spiritual beliefs, and was even a high priestess for a time. In the early 1980s, we moved to East Tennessee, following my grandparents as they retreated to my grandfather’s homeland to retire. It was a little difficult for my family of reclusive, anti-social, homebody oddballs to find friends in general, much less to find a nurturing spiritual community. So, my mom continued as a solitary practitioner, exposing me to whatever rites and rituals I showed interest in. My mother always encouraged me to explore my own spirituality with absolute freedom and complete curiosity, whether that meant sharing in her Wiccan rituals, or attending Sunday School at the Freewill Baptist Church with my grandmother, or studying Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, and I feel as if this was one of the greatest gifts with which my mother blessed me. My personal spiritual development has always been a quest and an exploration, both deeply personal and meaningful, and I am so very grateful to my mother for making that possible.

Tomorrow is the first day of winter, or the winter solstice, and since I will be out-of-town visiting my grandmother, I will be performing my Yuletide rites this evening, like the true little lapsed pagan that I am. My method of ritual is highly informal and extremely personal — since I was always a solitary practitioner, it seemed a lot less important to “get the words right” to a ritual and much more important to “get the purpose right.” This, of course, means that I sort of “wing it” every year — I come up with a different way to celebrate, and it often means that I spend an hour basically rambling stream-of-consciousness prayers aloud to the god and goddess. (Lapsed pagan != good pagan.)

My altar in the bedroom.

My altar is a mismatched collection of items from various religious traditions, natural sources, and personal mojos, representing directions, elements, and my own spirit. (My favorite items are things I’ve collected from my time at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church — the chalice patch, flowers from a flower communion.) Even though my altar is the magical & spiritual center of the house, I like to perform my holiday rituals downstairs in the main living areas. For Yuletide, I generally bring my athame, and then five items to represent the elements: air (usually incense), water (chalice), fire (candle), earth (the antlers from a deer my grandfather killed), and spirit (this varies; tonight, I plan to use a winter-styled candle to represent the sun). I call the corners, and I try to remember to do them in the same order and move clockwise. For me, East is Air, represented by a hummingbird, an element for ideas, communication, and intellectual activity. East is a good place for me to begin, too, because I have an affinity for the Air element. South is Fire, represented by a lizard, an element for physicality, passion, and energy. West is Water, represented by my beloved turtle, an element for inner workings, meditation, deep thoughts, and introspection. North is Earth, represented by a white stag, an element for wisdom, stability, and clarity of action. Once the corners are called, instead of invoking the god and goddess, I generally invoke “the Spirit of the Universe; the energy that connects all life,” since I have difficulty seeing the divine as a personal entity. Once the circle is cast, it is time to begin the Yuletide ritual.

The downstairs set up for Yuletide.

For me, the ritual of Yule is probably the simplest — no doubt because I’ve adapted it over the years to fit into the chaos that often surrounds the Christmas holidays. I simply express joy about the rebirth of the sun, and light all of the candles in the house to help it on its way. This is where I often fall into my stream-of-consciousness prayers. While other holidays (Samhain, Ostara) are often a time for me to give thanks to the Universe for the “gifts” I’ve received and to reflect on the direction of my life, Yule is simply a celebration of the Sun and light returning to the Earth. After I light the candles, I may quietly meditate and let joy and light fill my heart, or I might take the opportunity to sing and dance (Ring Out Solstice Bells by Jethro Tull is one of my favorites for this activity; here is the Spotify playlist I’ve created for Yuletide this year.) Depending on time and availability, I may also light a fire in the firepit outside, or at least light a fire in the fireplace. After the celebration of the return of light to the world, I close the circle, but I leave the candles burning as long as it feels safe to do so, and I spend the remainder of the evening basking in the light of my loved ones around me and the shared joy and spirit of the winter holidays.