Though I loved the coziness of a fire in the winter’s dark, the reunion of far-flung beloveds, the feast of epic proportions and other shared rituals, at a certain point I had to admit to myself that the painful disappointments of Christmas far outweighed its joys in my family.  Like many commercial holidays, it was a loaded time for my family; rife with tensions, the ensnarement of obligation and, in the end, dashed hopefulness.

It wasn’t until my mid-twenties, after many sad Christmases alone, that I decided to take the holy power back. Starting from scratch, I began to build new traditions for myself, focusing on aspects of the holiday that I cherished, growing them outwards from there.

At the time, I lived in Kensington Market, a colourful enclave in the heart of Toronto populated by artists, merchants and bohemian types. Every year they had a magical parade on the Winter Solstice when the streets would fill with freaky people, bands played on the rooftops with drums and trumpets, and everyone hoisted their colourful, handmade lanterns into the night sky. The whole thing culminated in a terrible-wonderful bonfire, when we burned our precious creations and boogied-down in the snow.

I loved lighting the longest dark of the year, celebrating our endurance and honouring all that we were releasing in the fire, and decided to adopt the Winter Solstice as my new tradition. Unlike the Christian holiday, observing the ancient astronomical event made deep sense to me. While it took some time to develop a relationship with it, eventually Solstice displaced all that old tension and loss, infusing this time of year with new life and love.

Instead of buying presents, now we roast a giant bird for our friends, gather musicians to fill our night with song, light our home with lanterns and, instead of cutting down a tree my partner and I build one from scratch using bits we find on the forest floor; branches, spirals of honeysuckle and fallen boughs of fir.

Click for a step-by-step tutorial for this DIY Solstice Tree

We observe the sacred aspect of the holiday by gathering in ritual around the fire to honour our grief and our loss through storytelling moistened with tears, witnessed by those who know  – and we express our deep gratitude for the returning of the light. This year we were blessed to gather with like-hearted friends, in a gorgeous tipi they raised on their land for to birth their own new traditions.

Photograph by Christopher Roy

While there are still times when I find myself mourning what never could be in my family of origin, now in the balance the joys far outweigh any disappointments. A blessed holiday to all of you and yours!