Celebrating the Winter Solstice in Cornell Plantations’ Mullestein Family Winter Garden
By modern-day reckoning, the winter solstice marks the beginning of winter in the northern hemisphere, though in some earlier traditions the solstice was considered the middle of winter, or ‘midwinter’. Similarly, the summer solstice was once considered ‘midsummer’, as in Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. This makes the Winter Garden the perfect spot to celebrate the first day of winter!
“The winter solstice has been celebrated around the world by many cultures since ancient times, and here in the West, a lot of our familiar holiday celebrations have ancient origins,” stated Kevin Moss, adult education and volunteer coordinator at Cornell Plantations. “Plants have always been a big part of those traditions. For example, evergreens were considered sacred by many ancient peoples because they were the plants that never died – they stayed green all winter long while other plants withered and died back when the life-giving sun was the furthest away. Evergreen wreaths, with their circular shape, are symbols of strength and represent the cycle of life, death and rebirth.”
Bringing evergreens indoors was believed to ward off misfortune through the winter season. A wonderful Celtic tradition held that bringing evergreens inside would give woodland spirits and faeries a warm place to spend the winter, and in return they would bring you good fortune. However, you had to make sure you didn’t leave the greens inside too long, or they might take up permanent residence -- and then you’d have a bunch of mischievous pixies living in your house!
Other plants such as oak, holly, ivy, and mistletoe have folk and mythic traditions related to the winter solstice as well. The Oak was usually used for bonfires during the midwinter celebration known as Yule by pre-Christian Germanic peoples. Celtic druids believe the oak to be the most sacred of all trees, and mistletoe that grew on oak trees was considered a powerful and sacred magical plant. Holly was included in the evergreens brought inside during the winter and was especially prized because of its shiny leaves and its ability to bear fruit in winter. Holly trees were sacred to the powerful Roman god Saturn, and holly wreaths with bright red berries were given as gifts during his holiday -- the Saturnalia, which was the winter solstice festival upon which the Christmas holiday was modeled.
You will discover the cultural and natural history of these plants and more at our “Plants of the Winter Solstice” program. The program will include a guided tour of the Mullestein Winter Garden, and participants will make a simple evergreen wreath to take home. Then, as darkness descends, we’ll head back outside for some traditional wassailing and a simple solstice ceremony at our outdoor fire pit. Refreshments and all materials will be provided. The cost is $36 ($30 for Plantations members and Cornell students). Pre-registration is required. Click here to register.
About the Winter Solstice
The winter solstice itself is an astronomical event that occurs as a result of the earth’s 23.4 degree axial tilt, and its relationship to the sun. On the day of the solstice, the northern half of the planet is tilted directly away from the sun, so from the perspective of those living in the Northern Hemisphere, the sun rises and sets in its furthest point south of the equatorial plane, and traces its lowest arc across the daytime sky. This also gives us both the shortest day of the year, and the longest night. From that point on, however, the days will gradually grow longer and longer, and the nights shorter and shorter, as the sun slowly returns to the north.
But everything is relative to your position on the Earth: on the same date, December 21, if you’re in the southern hemisphere, you’ll celebrate the first day of summer. Winter for you would begin around June 21 – which is the time of the summer solstice for us. The winter solstice occurs at 12:11 pm EST on December 21, 2013.
About the Mullestein Family Garden
You can enjoy the Winter Garden at Cornell Plantations throughout the year. This one-acre site contains over 700 plants chosen for their interesting bark texture, bark color, unusual growth habits, winter fruit, cones, or evergreen foliage. These qualities provide color and interest during Ithaca’s long winters, making the winter garden a year-round destination for visitors. Plants found in the garden include shrubby dogwoods, willows, birches, hawthorns, and small conifers in different shades of blue, silver, green, and gold, which provide an attractive backdrop for the bright fruit and bark colors.