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20 December 2023 •   

Long nights before Christmas


To mark the shortest days of the year, the holidays and the winter solstice, I interviewed Francesca, creator of the Instagram page @a_look_to_the_alps.

Her words are about ancient traditions that echo to this day and become our own. By capturing the wintry magic of this period through her images, Francesca leads us to the discover - or rediscover - a way of enjoying the festivities in contact with nature and ourselves.

How can we spend these days intentionally? What are our favorite traditions? What minimalist and slow decorations can we use in our home?

I will leave you with Francesca's words. She has also left us an old recipe to celebrate this season.

Q. What does this season mean to you?

A. Yuletide is a magical time for contemplation. It is the winter solstice, also known as Midwinter according to the Wheel of the Year. The longest night happens on or around 21 December when it lasts the longest. The Wiccan tradition celebrates the cycles of nature, including the birth of the young Sun God. In other Neopagan traditions, the Holly King is defeated by his lighter aspect, the Oak King.

Q. What are the traditions and decorations that symbolize the Winter Solstice?

A. Symbols such as candles, festivals, and evergreen decorations serve as reminders that light and life persist despite the harshness of winter. Bonfires were also a significant aspect of Winter Solstice and Christmas celebrations. Our ancestors believed that bonfires could ward off evil spirits at night. In other cultures, firelight was believed to help bring sunlight back into the sky. It is customary to clean the house and get rid of unwanted items during the Yule celebrations. This will help prepare for the new season by creating a space free of negative energies or memories accumulated over the year.

Foto by Francesca - @a_look_to_the_alps

Q. The tradition of 'getting rid of old things' reminds me of those who symbolically throw items out of the window on 31 December. This somewhat extreme gesture recalls the idea of making space for what will come with the New Year.  How do you celebrate this season?

A. The upcoming Winter Solstice is a perfect time to reflect on the past year and start thinking of what you want for the year ahead. Personally, I try to spend extra time with my loved ones and family. I also use this time to plan how to achieve my goals. Yule is a period of introspection for me, where I reflect and think about what I want the upcoming year to be like. There are several ways to celebrate this season in your home: It’s nearly impossible for me to describe all of them. However, it is important to note that many of our modern practices, often without much thought, have their roots in ancient solstice traditions: the Christmas tree, lights and gift-giving all have historical significance.

Foto by Francesca - @a_look_to_the_alps

Q. Do we unconsciously return to old traditions at Christmas? You previously mentioned seasonality. Do you decorate your living space? If yes, what kind of decorations make you feel at home?

A. For some years now, I have been using my Instagram page @a_look_to_the_alps to raise awareness for a more conscious, minimal, and slow Christmas. This is the time of the year when I feel most out of place. Unlike the other houses in my street, my house has no outside lights or garish decorations. Instead, I prefer to collect pine cones and dry branches from the forest to use as decorations, along with paper bag stars. I choose beeswax candles instead of electric lights. I simply say 'nothing' when asked what I want for a present. 'Weird' is the word my family uses the most. Living a minimalist lifestyle can be challenging due to societal expectations. I used to question my desire to live simpler when judged and criticized. Our culture has instilled in us a “fear of missing out”. This leads us to keep busy by constantly planning and filling our lives with unnecessary things. One of these things is impulse buying. Let's also talk about overspending on Christmas dinners and the 'gift rush'.

Q. Many people think back to their childhood at this time of year. What kind of memories does Christmas bring back to you?

A. I reflect on how my parents, like myself, were imperfect people. Despite their imperfections, they loved deeply. I also consider how our holidays, much like our lives, were simple and imperfect by social media standards, yet still beautiful.

Foto by Francesca - @a_look_to_the_alps

Q. During this time of year, it is common to feel overwhelmed with a long list of tasks and social events, not to mention the anticipation of the Christmas season which seems to start earlier every year. As we approach the end of the year, every step and stage is filled with hope and anticipation. How do you manage these emotions?

A. I wonder: as we approach the busy holiday season, how can we simplify our lives and make room for the joy of celebrating with loved ones?

Lights and parties can be helpful, but they can be ineffective if we use them as distractions. Let us not deceive ourselves that there is light when it is actually darkness. The Buddha teaches that suffering arises from craving what we want and avoiding what we dislike. Are we using bright lights to avoid the darkness?

Let us take a moment to appreciate the beauty of the night: the stars, the moon, and the wildlife such as deer, foxes, and owls. Like the bear and the groundhog, our bodies seek rest, while our souls enjoy the time of dreams in the darkness.

Foto by Francesca - @a_look_to_the_alps

Q. Would you like to share with us something typical of this period?

A. I leave you with the ancient recipe for Yule Wassail, with the hope that light will always shine both inside and out.

Q. What is the story behind this recipe? Is it also the origin of a modern Yuletide tradition?

A.  The term 'wassail' originally meant to greet someone. The concept of 'wassailing' dates back to pre-Christian fertility rites. During these ceremonies, villagers would walk through fields and orchards in the middle of winter, singing and shouting to drive away spirits that might inhibit the growth of future crops. They would also pour wine and cider on the ground to promote earth fertility.

Over time, the concept of wassailing evolved into carol singing, which became popular during the Victorian era and is still practiced today in many nations. If you believe your family or friends would enjoy starting a new musical tradition, why not gather them together to go wassailing for Yule?

Foto by Francesca - @a_look_to_the_alps

Francesca told us about 'wassailing', an old tradition. But even in our modern times, at Christmas time, a group of people may have walked down your street singing carols. I don't know how many towns still do it, but where I grew up it was called "Chiarastella" (literally "bright star"). The nostalgia, that is often present around Christmas, brought back many childhood memories. Among them were the wonderful evenings spent singing from house to house. The tradition of singing together, involving whole streets and villages, has always warmed my heart, regardless of the type of song and the ancient ritual that gave birth to it. It is a time of belonging, of sharing, and in the eyes of 'me' as a child, a time when quarrels and problems fall silent. On the contrary, the houses often opened up to the group of cold people, they improvised snacks or dinners, went to the cellar for wine, salami and bread. It was a celebration.

This year I wish you that kind of celebration, where time, songs and good food are shared. Where we see everything with a little extra magic, like when we were children and walked at a slow pace to fully savor the beauty of this season.

Happy Solstice and Merry Christmas.

You can find @a_look_to_the_alps e @leafandtimber on Instagram!

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I am Lisa, architect, fantasy addicted and short story writer. Together we'll create a place to live at your own speed, where you can gather with your loved ones and write your own story.

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