Many Cultures Marked the Solstice
For thousands of years The Winter Solstice has been celebrated by different cultures. Some traditions include the Hopi Tribe’s festival of Soyal, the Hindu holiday of Diwali, the Pakistani tradition of Chaomos, the East Asian observance of Dongzhi, and Saturnalia, an ancient Roman festival. Yule was a celebration of the Germanic peoples. Present-day holiday customs such as feasts, gift giving, singing, and burning logs or candles have connections to Yule traditions.
Practices such as myth- and oral-story- telling, folklore, and ancient beliefs have been woven into the fabric of our modern-day celebrations. Decorations, lighting candles, and feasting with friends and family are all hallmarks the winter holidays of Christmas and Hanukkah. And, probably not coincidentally, they happen around the time of the winter solstice.
Having Faith That the Sun Would Return
Before more accurate understandings of the solar system, gravity, and axial tilt, people told stories to explain the darkness, entertain each other, or to provide reassurance. Depending on where they lived, winters could be cold. In the northern hemisphere, days would be shorter and darker. Agriculture would be limited, or nonexistent.
That’s why it was important to manage the previous season’s harvest. Their food supply was vital, and feasting was an integral part of the end-of-year festivities, as it is today. If the community’s harvest was inadequate, or group members got sick in the dead of winter, they might not survive. Their rituals kept their hopes up.
People did this by bringing greenery into their homes to be closer to nature. Evergreens are symbolic because they are enduring. Ancient pagans lit candles and fires for warmth and to invite the sun back. Since spring returned yearly, the ancients believed their rituals worked.
This play between light and darkness features in Judaism and Hinduism, as well in winter. The lighting of the menorah during Hanukkah symbolizes overcoming politically darker days of oppression, while Diwali signifies the victory of light over darkness and knowledge over ignorance. The commonality is that both celebrations encourage perseverance through the darkest days of the year.
Clove and Orange Pomander
Making orange pomanders is another way to celebrate the winter solstice and the return of the sun. Orange pomanders are traditionally given to symbolize nature and the returning light and prosperity. They are great for gifts, decorations, and provide a fabulous fragrance for the holidays.
CHECK OUT MY TIKTOK VIDEO DEMONSTRATION BELOW, AND THEN READ ON FOR MORE DETAILS!
History of Pomanders
A pomander is a ball made for perfumes. They were used in the late Middle Ages through the 17th century to perfume the air in the immediate vicinity. Anyone with one would find it more tolerable to walk streets where filth and disease reigned. People would carry them or wear them as a necklace or ring.
Those wealthy enough could afford silver or gold pomanders, which were globular cages for holding fragrant herbs or scents. But, even made from an apple, the poor of the middle ages would not have wasted perfectly good food for a mere decoration.
Later, pomander balls could be found in colonial homes in baskets, cupboards, or carried in a travelers’ handkerchief to sniff when they encountered nasty odors on the road. By the Victorian era, pomander balls were a staple in many American homes.
One modern style of pomander is made by studding an orange or other fruit with whole dried cloves and letting it cure dry, after which it may last many, many years. This modern pomander scents the air, keeps drawers of clothing and linens pleasant-smelling and moth-free, and is a festive decoration or gift.
First cultivated in eastern Asia, oranges are now grown in warmer zones worldwide. While the fruit has a variety of culinary uses, due to their color and round shape, oranges are symbolic of the sun. They also carry connotations of good luck and fertility.
Crusaders introduced oranges to Europe beginning in the 11th and 12th centuries, but, due to the climate, the fruit can only be grown in the Mediterranean region of Europe. In northern Europe, the expense and difficulty of importing fresh oranges, plus the fact that the fruit usually ripens in December, made them a popular choice for gifts and decorations in the winter, as a symbol of celebration and good fortune.
The word clove comes from the Latin word clavus, meaning nail. That makes sense because the shaft and head of the clove bud resembles a nail. Cloves are the aromatic flower buds of the evergreen tree Syzygium aromaticum. They are native to Indonesia and are commonly used as a spice in a variety of cuisines.
Cloves were probably imported from the Spice Islands (the Moluccas in Indonesia) into China more than 2000 years ago. From the 8th century, cloves became increasingly popular in Europe. The importation of them helped the enterprising Venetians become extraordinarily wealthy.
After, the Portuguese came to the Spice Islands in 1514. They, along with Spain and Italy, grew prosperous from the trade. The US entered the spice trade in 1672, making Salem Massachusetts a successful seaport, but the Dutch had formerly come to the Spice Islands in 1605 and they retained control over the trade until late in the 18th century.
By then, the exotic spices of the Moluccas were starting to be grown elsewhere in the world, crushing their monopoly. So, until the 1700s, cloves were traded like oil, with an enforced limit on exportation. But, today, clove trees are grown in India, Jamaica, the West Indies, Brazil, Sumatra, and other in tropical locations -- and you can buy cloves relatively inexpensively.
Winter Solstice Clove & Orange Pomanders:
You can make pomanders with oranges, lemons, grapefruit, or other citrus. Use toothpicks or skewers to make holes, into which cloves may be inserted. You can use a pen or marker to pre-draw a design, if you like. Alternately, you can use a citrus zester or channel knife to draw a design in the fruit before inserting the cloves.
Pomanders can be dehydrated in a paper bag with orris root. Alternately, they can be baked on a wire rack in a pre-heated oven at 275°F for about 4-5 hours, or until the fruit has darkened and dried out. The pomanders are ready when they are dried and feel light in weight. They should sound hollow when tapped.
Pomanders can also be displayed without preserving them. If you choose to do that, you’ll want to place them in the refrigerator at night to prolong their freshness. Use the wire to hang your pomander by running it through the orange. Twist a loop at both the bottom and top to hang or string additional pomanders together
Check out this enrichment / cross curricular Winter Solstice Activity. You could definately use this in a science, geography, history, or economics activity to highlight the celebration of the winter solstice across cultures. This could even be used for a Science Fair! Here is a video showing how to make the pomanders. Happy Winter Solstice!!
Gertrude Katz has spent over 30 years teaching K-12 public school students all major subjects. She has taught biology and education at the college level. The majority of her career has been spent instructing biology at the secondary level.