Tag Archives: gift giving

Living the Wheel of the Year: Spiritual and Sustainable Practices for the Winter Solstice

As the Wheel of the Year continues to turn, we find ourselves once more in the time of darkness and cold; the time of the brown and the gray; the time of the Winter Solstice.  The Winter Solstice, happening around the 21st of December, represents the longest night and shortest day for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere.  It marks the real start of winter, which continues until the Spring Equinox.  And while this is a time of challenge and struggle for many, I like to think of this time, like all times, represents an opportunity to turn inward, to examine our inner worlds and our inner home lives, and to again seek methods of sustainable practice and action.  So here are some spiritual and sustainable practices that you can practice around the Winter Solstice:

Frozen Lake Walking

Frozen Lake Walking


Winter walking.  I think that one of the challenges we face as a culture in terms of sustainable action is a disconnection with the natural world–especially the natural world in all her forms and in all of her seasons. One of the best ways of reconnecting is to see the beauty and mystery in each day, regardless of the weather.  Because of this, I have worked hard to spend a little time outside each day and an extended period of time at least once a week outdoors, regardless of the weather.  I make it a point to go on “winter walks” in different types of weather.  If you plan on engaging in this practice, invest in some good cold-weather gear.  Good wool socks, sweaters, and long-johns, good hats and gloves, and multiple layers of warm clothing will make walks outside enjoyable for you and any others who choose to join you.  The key, especially when exposing others who are maybe not used to the winter cold, is to encourage them to dress warm.

I find the time around the Winter Solstice strikingly beautiful–the grasses have died back but are still gorgeous in shades of brown, the landscape shows things hidden with summer foliage.  Usually here, its usually too early for snow before the solstice, so the browns and deep reds and grays dominate the landscape.  The conifers hold the promise of spring in their greenery.   If there is snow, the patterns of animals, usually invisible in the summer, are now revealed.  Once the deeper cold of January sets in and our lakes freeze over, I also very much enjoy lake walking (see photo above).  You get to commune with the water in a different way.

Regardless of how you choose to winter walk, experiencing this beauty, and sharing it with others, can help us build a deeper awareness and connection to the world (and I think that gives us the underlying impetus for sacred and sustainable action).


Candlemaking - another great skill!

Candlemaking – another great skill!

Make some winter crafts, medicine, and ritual objects. The Winter Solstice and the dark times provide us excellent time to practice various bardic arts, especially those of a physical nature.  The Winter Solstice is my favorite for finishing up my tinctures created earlier in the season and making medicinal salves for use for the upcoming year. I also like to make big batches of laundry soap and candles.  I’m making time also to make my own bars of regular soap after having some fantastic lessons this past year. This is also the time when I make smudges and incense.  The idea here is that the more you can make and provide yourself, the more energetically connected you are, the more fulfilled you are (because you are providing some of your own needs), and the less drain you are creating on the system as a whole.  This is especially true if you mindfully source anything you don’t have to make your various home goods and crafts.


Alternative gift giving. I wrote about thinking for meaningful alternatives to typical consumerist holiday practices before; it is presented in more detail here.  But I again want to encourage readers to think carefully about what needs to be bought, and what can be repurposed; to see the holidays not as a time of excess and spending, as so many now do, but one where we can use creative thinking for meaningful change. For my friends and extended family, I’ve taken to giving people things from my garden–a small bag of sundried tomatoes or a wonderful rhubarb-orange summer solstice jam really is a gift from the heart.  One of the things my family has been conscious of doing for some time now is engaging in a “secret santa” gift exchange.  Each person gets one other person’s name and a list of things they would like; only $50 can be spend total on the gifts, but any handmade/repurposed gifts are welcome in addition.  We also use either re-usable wrapping paper or junk mail/papers to wrap all gifts. This alternative gift giving does a few things–it allows everyone to buy and gain less stuff, and the stuff that is purchased is purchased to fill a need.  The gifts are meaningful because they are heartfelt and useful because they are some of what was requested.


Exploring alternative lighting and have “candlelight evenings.” It is possible for nearly everyone to explore alternatives to electric lighting during this dark time.  I like to have what I call “electricity free” days where I live more naturally and in rhythm with the earth (and use a lot less resources).  I do keep the power on for running my refrigerator, flushing the toilet, and making sure my pipes don’t freeze.  But other that, I switch to oil lamps and candles and explore activities that can be done without computers, phones, televisions, and electric lighting. I like to have candlelit evenings when spending time with my family members around the holidays if at all possible–doing this as a group makes a candlelit evening all the more special. We can play games, tell stories, entertain each other. We might even do some woodstove cooking rather than turn on the range.  This is a nice addition to the “meaningful gifts” idea above for family time while engaging in more meaningful and mindful living.

Oil lamps can be found fairly cheaply at antiques sales and the like, they are easy to use, and they make wonderful lighting (you can even read by them); you do want to be careful what kind of oil you purchase for them (mine were kerosine when I bought them, but now I switched out the wicks and have most of mine burning vegetable oil.  Kerosine is very smelly and is a fossil fuel). A single oil lamp is worth about three good candles in terms of light and they are extremely efficient. You can also make your own oil lamps (see instructions on the web here).  Beeswax candles are much longer-lasting and sustainable than paraffin ones, although any candle will put out light.


Spinach greens started from seed saved from last year

Spinach greens started from seed saved from last year

Garden planning and seed starting. One of the other wonderful activities you can do this time of year is to take stock in your seeds, to order or trade for new seeds that are needed, and to plan the garden for the next season. Even if this is your first year, now is a great time to think about what you might do when you can break ground in the spring, or put in a few pots of herbs, or plan your dream growing space. If you want to start all of your own seeds, this also requires some planning and foresight…in my bioregion, I usually start the first of my seeds as early as January.  I have a few good posts to help you get started: Seed Starting and Garden Planning: Reasons to Start Seed, Seed Research, and Seed Starting Setups; Sowing the Seeds of the Future: Spiritual Insights on Seed Starting and Growth; Seed Saving, Heirloom Seeds, and Sustainability.


Finished worm castings from vermicompost--awesome!

Finished worm castings from vermicompost–awesome!

Indoor composting (vermicomposting).  Another thing you can do to build more sustainable practices is start an indoor composting bin and start creating some great soil and getting to know earthworms and their activity in the process.  I have instructions on how to start such a bin and some spiritual insights from the vermicomposting process.


Home energy audits and actions to seal up the home. Because the cold is blowing in, you might take this time to do an energy audit of your house/apartment and find ways to make your home more airtight and more efficient.  The EPA suggests that anywhere from 5-30% of energy can be saved with a home energy audit and taking action.  This is a perfect thing to do in the dark months, and the colder it gets out, the easier it is to figure out where the cold spots are.  There are lots of instructions online about how to seal up your home better–here’s one that I used to do my own energy audit.  But you don’t need anything fancy to do such an audit.

I am working on my own home energy audit this winter–I have several rooms that I don’t heat in winter because they currently aren’t in use, and I’ve been working to seal them up, insulate uninsulated lightswitches, and prevent heat loss from under/near doors and windows.  I’m also working to add throw carpets to my cold floors that sit on the slab foundation in my house to help with my cold feet.  I can already see a difference in the warmth of my home from these small changes.


Introspection and meditation. A final suggestion for winter solstice activities–take the opportunity to spend some time in introspection and meditation.  Daily meditation on various themes can lead to amazing insights–I do discursive meditation daily as part of my AODA practice, and often find myself meditating on phrases or concepts from herbalism, nature-based writers like Wendell Berry, or permauclture designers.  Spending time with yourself during the winter months can lead to a blossoming of light and life within.

Shifting away from Materialism and into the Sacred: Alternatives to Typical Holiday Gift Giving

We find ourselves, yet again, in the middle of the “holiday season” where the emphasis has drifted away from families and is now on cheap deals, plasma televisions, and the amassing of various piles of stuff. Against the cultural push of this frenzied time, I wanted to take some time to reflect upon alternatives to materialism and challenge the underlying values that materialism promotes.


Holiday Shopping Spree--the lights are pretty, but not all that glitters is gold

Holiday Shopping Spree–the lights are pretty, but not all that glitters is gold

What is materialism? Materialism, in the simplest terms, is an obsession with “stuff,” particularly, the acquisition of stuff as a way to promote and maintain self-image. This “stuff” includes consumer goods, like name brand watches, plasma televisions, vehicles, the latest fashionable clothing, even down to smaller things, like purchasing that new pair of shoes you just have to have but don’t need.  I’d also argue that it extends to things like lawn care products, where maintaining an image of an immaculate green lawn is the goal, or the purchase of expensive Yoga pants for going to the Yoga studio (which can also be an image thing). Materialism dominates our consumer culture, where the products we purchase, the way we look, the things we consume, and the things we want to have define our reality and sense of selves.  In the story of stuff, which I linked above, Annie Lennox argue that less than 1% of the stuff that is purchased each year is still in circulation a year later–most of it gets thrown away so that new stuff can be purchased. The point of all of this stuff isn’t use, its about the hunt, the deal, the purchase–and the resulting image that the stuff can convey.  There’s been a lot of talk about the environmental impacts of consumerism and materialism (and I’ve certainly talked about this on the blog).  But some of the new research also suggests the detrimental impacts on people.


What does materialism cause for humans and their communities? Now, I’m an educational researcher, and we don’t use the term “cause” lightly (most research can demonstrate relationships, or correlations, between two things, but its much more difficult to prove any kind of causal link between such relationships).  The most recent research into materialism, however, is using experimental design and longitudinal research to demonstrate that materialism not only correlates, but in some cases, causes detrimental effects on people’s well-being, where the well being of highly materialistic students was directly linked to how materialistic they were (Kasser et. al, 2013).


Bauer et. al. (2012) found that high materialism heightened negative emotions, increased competitiveness, increased selfishness, and reduced social involvement. The Bauer study is particularly important because it didn’t just examine highly materialistic people, but found that even for people with lower levels of materialism, when they were exposed to a materialistic environment, they became more materialistic and showed negative effects. The ramifications of the Bauer study should be taken seriously–even for people who aren’t materialistic by nature, materialistic cues (such as the hundreds of ads that people in most industrialized nations are exposed to every day, or the near 20 minutes of ads for every hour of television watched) trigger materialistic behavior (and its detrimental effects).


Shifting away from Materialism at the Holidays. While materialism is always a problem in our culture,  it becomes exacerbated around the holiday time, when the frenzy of buying gifts is in full swing. I remember a time when I was dating a person whose family was pretty well off. I was overwhelmed at Christmas those few years–they literally filled a whole room with presents, at least a 10′ x 15′ area, and I left with garbage bags full of new items, many of which I had no desire for and never used. His mother expressed her joy at simply shopping for days on end to find the perfect things for everyone on her list–it was like a hunt to her. My own extended family, who is generally pretty down-to-earth and not nearly as well off, didn’t do gift giving when I was growing up for the most part.  But eventually, things changed, and even we got a bit out of control with gift purchasing (especially with my dearest mom and her desire to fill up stockings with dollar store purchases!) We were all buying gifts for everyone, and it was hard to figure out what to buy and who would want what, and hard not to spend a good deal of money. A lot of waste and frustration went into the whole thing, and we ended up getting things that we didn’t really want or need. About five years ago, this eventually lead us to re-evaluating the holiday season, its values, and its purpose.


We decided to do a simple Secret Santa gift exchange. Each person created a list of things that they would really like to have (and often needed, like new socks or warm mittens) and one person who was in charge of the Secret Santa gave that list to one other person who was also participating. The names were kept secret, and the fun began. When you got your list, you only worked on gifts for that one person, and you couldn’t spend more than $50 total. The emphasis was strongly on handmade, re-purposed, or otherwise personalized gifts, and gifts were to be meaningful things that people needed.  We also emphasized alternative wrapping (newspapers, paper bags, cloth), which has proven to be much more sustainable than one-use papers.


Ziggy bird helps open gifts!

Ziggy bird helps open gifts!

This Secret Santa process transformed the holiday season–we took something that was firmly entrenched in “materialist” mode of thinking, with its frenzied black Fridays and its over-consumptive habits–and transformed it something meaningful, creative, and more personalized. While this process certainly made the gifts that one received at the holidays much better and eliminated excess, it also created a sense of joy that I think we as a family had lost in the frenzy. We truly enjoyed making things and sharing them with others, waiting to see with delight how the gifts would be received. This year, I’m in the process of creating a set of gifts for one of my family members. Because I’m working just on one person’s gifts, I can invest the time and care to make his gifts meaningful and extra special.


Other ideas for gift giving at the holidays include the “handmade only” year, where each person has to make gifts (and gifts don’t have to be physical things–back rubs, poems, songs, and the like can also be made).  While some families will feel that they don’t have the talents for this, I would suggest that the process can help rediscover lost creativity and bring back our older human traditions of making useful things.

While holiday gift giving represents only a small portion of what can be done to make the shift away from materialism, I think its a great way to start recognizing that we can live with alternative value systems and create sacred, creative spaces within this otherwise materialistic world.


Benefits of Shifting Away from Materialism more Broadly

I do want to briefly speak about the joys one experiences in making the conscious shift away from materialistic approaches to life in a broader sense.  As I’ve described in various ways on this blog, I’ve done much in my own life to shift away from a consumer lifestyle, and I have felt the tangible benefits of doing so! It has made me alive, aware, awake and most of all, reverent and thankful. If everything can just be purchased easily, it has no real meaning. When you start living simply and with less, the things you have take on much more meaning because they are not just bought, but found, made, adapted.  You aren’t overwhelmed or overloaded with useless stuff, so your life becomes decluttered. You have a more sacred relationship with the food you grow, especially when eating it from the wooden spoon that was a gift from a friend. You appreciate a fresh strawberry, because you choose to eat them only in season from your yard or from a farmer’s market (and they taste way better when fresh picked). You appreciate the work of artists and handmade gifts become more valuable than all the plasma TVs in the world (which you aren’t watching anyways). You appreciate the warm woolen mittens that were handcrafted out of old sweaters. You begin to seek out those joys that cannot be bought and that don’t have mass market appeal, realizing that those are the best things in life, the things worth having, aren’t things that can be purchased in any store.  And that is a very sacred thing.