Firstly, the solstice is an actual event in nature. That is, it's not a day that is created by humans to celebrate something. It's the moment when the ancient peoples said that the sun 'stood still' (sol-sun, sistere-stand still), because at noon it appears that it doesn't move. Before calenders and clocks, people relied on the seasons, the sun and the moon, to mark the passage of time, and thereby also times for the garden, animals, and life events.
This naturalness and the association with a simple way of life that was connected to nature is important to me. Although there are cultures and groups who have attached religious significance to the day, including some ancients who often associated natural occurences with divine Beings, it is nevertheless a totally unreligious day.
This means two things. For the unreligious it's a day where one can 'celebrate' without any religious connotations. For a religious/spiritual person, it can be a day that is easily adapted to personal beliefs and philosophies.
For me, it begins with a deep understanding of our connection to Nature and subsequently the interconnection between the whole web of life.
So the sun has been declining in the sky. At the solstice we experience the darkest days. Will the sun return? We will have the days of warmth once more? As the solstice moment passes, so the sun will begin its ascent. In other words, the darkest of winter is here and from now on the days will lengthen and the sun will return, a promise of the Spring and Summer to come.
You can see how we can take this natural occurence and attach to it a variety of meanings. The death and rebirth of deity. A philosophical time of ending the Darkness and heading towards new Light. It is also a moment of great Balance. It can be a time of what Was to what Will Be.
Also, it needn't all be about the sun either. Some people focus on the Winter aspect. I very much connect to the Winter energy. For some cultures its the beginning of Winter whilst for others it is midwinter. This will affect the significance of the days.
So for me, it's a time of balance. In that moment when the earth holds it breath, I breathe in the energy of Perfect and Fragile Balance. It is a moment of great power.
It is a time to do as Winter does - to let go of the old and to prepare for the new. Shed the old ways that have served their purpose, and prepare for what is to come, the new ways to better serve the future purpose.
It's also my new year. As the sun is reborn, so is the 'year'. Out of the Dark is born the Light.
In much the same way that a variety of meanings can be ascribed to the event, so can rituals and traditions.
I collect parts of nature to invite into my home. I collect the winter shedding (so I don't cut anything). I collect whatever is local and thereby significant to the land. I leave it in its natural state though I might string things together. This is a symbol of the connection to nature as well as the shedding of the old. I include a symbol of the sun/rebirth. This year, as the Autumn oranges have been recently harvested, I have included many oranges and mandarins. This collecting can be a lovely ritual of wrapping up warm, finding a quiet and beautiful location, and searching together.
The night before I light a black or dark blue candle as a symbol of the dark, and then on the day I light a light-coloured one as a symbol of the new light. It's also a meditative action of stillness and contemplation. I'm considering perhaps starting a ritual of lighting it every night for a week or so before. In our first home with an open fire, I placed a large log in the fire that would burn for at least a whole day. I will do this again at the new homestead. As for the 'night before' and 'after', the solstice moment happens at a precie second in time, but as the ancients, without clocks and fancy equipment that went ping, I mark the few days around the solstice, and decide myself which will be the main day.
I'm very fluid in my ways, so I don't tend towards fixed rituals or things like altars. But altars are certainly a common way to display those bits of nature, along with pictures, photos, food items, etc.
I cook a lovely meal that includes colours symbolising the solstice. I have in the past invited a few friends. I leave foods for the wildlife as a way to 'thank' nature for its cycles of death and life. I think I might make it a practice to do something like the bird feeders Denise makes with her boys . I think this is a great idea to do with kids. I also take time to do some important spiritual work for myself.
If you are new, or newish, to the solstice, and wish to add to your celebrations, I recommend looking into your ancestral line. There's a good chance you will find that your ancestor's culture marked the solstice. These traditions are inherited in your spiritual blood. It can then become a way to mark the event but also to connect to your heritage.