Between shopping, decorating, baking and showing up to holiday functions, this time of year tends to overwhelm. Getting caught up in all the frenzy results in losing sight of the magic and beauty of the season.

When Orion marched across the night sky and nightfall blanketed our ancestors in darkness, they celebrated a simpler and more natural holiday, the winter solstice. From the ancient Egyptians to the Celts, and the Hopi, winter signaled a time to turn inward, a time of ritual, reflection and rest.

For us in the Northern Hemisphere, Thursday, December 21st marks the beginning of winter when the sun shines at its most southern point. People celebrate the winter solstice to acknowledge winter’s arrival and look forward to the increasing light as the countdown to spring begins.

Many Christmas traditions date back to solstice celebrations, which incorporated Yule logs and decorating to brighten the dark winter nights. Evergreens, mistletoe, and holly began as symbols of everlasting life, a reminder many of us appreciate when darkness becomes so prevalent.

Even the earliest version of Santa Claus may be based on a story about the first shamans who climbed the highest peaks to visit the upper worlds, returning to their communities on the winter solstice with gifts that included predictions and visions for the coming year.

A typical Christmas celebration in 1800s Appalachia more closely resembled winter solstice than our current holiday customs. Back then, parents limited gift giving to one or two small gifts to their children, not the mound of presents we pile under today’s trees. Communities celebrated by eating sweets, setting off fireworks, gathering around bonfires, and drinking wine and moonshine.

For anyone craving deeper connections to people and places this holiday season, the answer might be as simple as getting outside with a loved one to witness late sunrises and early sunsets, to acknowledge the natural order and rhythm of the season.

The colder temperatures and early nightfall means some of our favorite trails, rivers, and mountain perches become less frequented. The stillness of winter landscapes provides the silence that cultivates intention.

In these quiet places, we may also find the requisite courage to revise our holiday rituals. Nature tethers us to what matters most, gifting us with the opportunity to create meaningful lives.