Solstice Preparations

Celebrating the sabbats gives a focus to the seasons for me, and I like to mark them all in some way because they add meaning to my life. They are always high points, coming at random mid-week and interrupting routines. Yule is the biggest and the only one with significant preparations well in advance of the day. However, this year even more than previously I have been asking myself what preparations do I want to do as a pagan? What will add meaning for me, rather than just going along with what everyone else does?

The Winter Solstice does of course celebrate the return of the light. This can be interpreted in many ways, including the birth of the sun god. Mithras, Sol Invictus, or Jesus, whichever sun god you prefer to celebrate. So I have been making a gold star for the top of our tree (not finished yet!), and hung many gold decorations. Dried orange slices, or clove oranges are also great decorations that I would love to do in a future year. The tree being evergreen represents everlasting life, and brings warmth and protection to the household through the darkest days. I will keep the decorated tree until the mornings finally start getting lighter around 5th January, long after the shortest afternoon.

December Candle

December Candle

We have had a “December candle” for the first time this year, burning for 45 minutes each dinner. This provoked an interesting discussion with a friend who is an Anthroposophist, who after some thought said she felt everything should be building up to the birth of Christ, not decreasing. She liked the Advent wreaths in which an increasing number of candles are lit each week. However I feel that our candle represents the diminishing sunlight, which then returns when we reach the big event on the Solstice. (Our celebrations involve getting up to see the sunrise, and then sharing gifts after that. Yes we open ours a few days before everyone else…) The candle is surrounded by an ivy ring, which fits with Yule meaning wheel. The year is at its turning point, and is a time of rebirth and transformation. The light returns, and all is renewed to grow again.

Feasting is a major part of Yule, because when it is dark and cold outside we need suitably warming and sustaining food, for our spirits as well as our physical bodies. We have lost the natural rhythms to our lives over the past century or so; before the electronic age most people would have spent Winter evenings around a fireside, entertaining each other by whatever means they felt suited to and generally resting instead of working outdoors until late at night. Storytelling and singing was popular, as well as other forms of communal entertainment. Today illness frequently forces us to rest. But the return of the sun gives an extra reason to celebrate and have a bigger or fancier meal than every day, with decorations and joyous feasts to welcome it back. The winter may be far from over, but the light is increasing again each day.

However there is one aspect which has puzzled me for a while now. There are various chambered cairns in the rocky parts of our islands, thought by some to have been used for shamanic practices such as initiations or retreats or communications with ancestors, since most contain very few actual remains. Some are carefully aligned to the Winter Solstice, so that the sun enters only on a few days each year in midwinter – bringing light to what is otherwise a perpetually dark space. A famous example is Newgrange in Ireland. But Maeshowe in Orkney, or Clava Cairns near Nairn are both aligned to the setting sun, rather than to the rebirth in the morning. So what exactly were our ancestors celebrating, and what form did these celebrations take?

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Aconitum

Aconitum napellus

Aconitum napellus


I first started growing Aconitums in the garden when I discovered it looked a bit like delphiniums but didn’t get eaten by slugs. Also known as Monkshood, thanks to the flower shape, or Wolfsbane thanks to its poisons; all parts of the plant are highly toxic.

There are few traditional uses for Aconitum, poisons for spear tips or arrows to kill wolves or tigers being the main ones, but some have used it on the skin as a painkiller for severe joint pain apparently, and horses can eat it when dried to give them a powerful narcotic stimulant. Used with Belladonna, Henbane, Hemlock and soot, it is said to produce a ‘flying ointment’ for witches – the landing may be a little more insecure than most of us would wish however! Modern witches have created a number of uses for Aconitum such as consecrating knives to banish old energies and give protection, burning at funerals, or when calling upon Hecate with whom the plant is associated.

Recently I have discovered Aconitum can be used for a very effective homoeopathic remedy for colds. Many homoeopathic remedies are based on poisons; my interpretation is that because of the way they are diluted and shaken to have a high energetic presence of the poison, the body is triggered into a reaction. However, as there is no actual physical poison there, the body’s reaction is used instead to fight the disease, in this case a ‘common’ cold. Magic. But not something I would want to prepare for myself…

So why grow it?
Besides being a way of becoming familiar with a great plant, it is actually very garden-worthy. A. napellus, pictured, grows to nearly six feet tall in my windy garden, yet never needs staking. It is a very pretty plant with a full four seasons of interest – the fresh young growth in Spring, flowers in Summer, good leaf colour in Autumn, and finally dried stems and seed cases through the Winter. It seems to be fairly undemanding, neither taking over nor being easily squeezed out, and grows happily in the middle of borders which conveniently ensures it is not brushed accidentally.

I see its parallel with Yew in the world of trees. Equally poisonous in almost all parts, Yew teaches us about death and transformation, letting us see the dark side of the cycle as a positive experience and allowing us to be reborn. Aconitum can be used to clear what needs to be cleared at a stroke, and see the fundamental truths. It is fast acting, being fast growing, but carries the power of renewal from the deep taproots. Having cleared, there is a store of energy there which can be used to create something new out of the ashes.