Winter is upon us. December 21, 2021 is the winter solstice, the day of the year with the shortest amount of daylight. On this day, the earth has its maximum tilt away from the sun in the Northern hemisphere. In the United States, today is also considered the first official day of winter! In many cultures, both current and historic, the winter solstice is a time for celebration, and the Great Smoky Mountains are filled with Appalachian heritage and tradition.
The Appalachian Mountains are ancient, some of the oldest in the world. Formed roughly 480 million years ago in the Paleozoic Era, they are filled with a long history of humans learning from the land, cultivating it, and caring for it. Pagan traditions of folklore, faith healing, medicine, and agriculture are thriving as much now as they were when the first humans set foot on the mountains. Common sense, resiliency, and fortitude, coupled with a deep connection to nature, resulted in land-proud folkways, like winter solstice celebrations, that are still being practiced today.
Explore and discover these fascinating traditions with our top 10 things to do in the Smoky Mountains to kick off the winter season!
Enjoy A Solstice Sunrise
Wake up early and watch the sunrise from Clingmans Dome, the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains. Capture the first break of light on the darkest day of the year by setting your alarm to wake you with enough time to make the hike. Pack a thermos of your favorite coffee or tea to sip while you soak in the beauty of the sun.
Create a Yule Altar
One of the most iconic traditions of the winter solstice is the yule altar, a wonderful way to honor the return of the sun. Whether you’re at home or you’re escaping to a cozy winter place to stay in the Smokies, you can decorate a mantel or shelf, or even create a festive table centerpiece, with fir, cedar, and wreaths. The most important element of a yule altar is a candle that symbolizes the sun, ideally a golden or yellow-hued candle. Cleanse the altar with sage or sweetgrass, and then light the candle in tribute to the sun.
Shine Your Light with a Yule Lantern
Bring light to the darkness by making your own lanterns. Being the shortest day means that the solstice is also the longest and darkest night of the year. An original pagan tradition was rooted in candlelight, not only because light was needed to see in the darkness, but it was also used to celebrate the return of the sun in the coming months. Visit one of the many artist studios and find a handmade lantern or candle to use as your sun candle. Or, better yet, many of the local artists in the Great Smoky Arts & Crafts Community offer classes – stop in for a lesson and make your own!
Learn from the Past
Listen to a mountain storyteller weave their tales that are steeped in Appalachian history and culture, some of which goes back to pagan Celtics who followed the sun and solstices closely.
Explore Appalachian Culture
Tap your toes to the sound of bluegrass music coming from the open windows of virtually any venue you pass by. Or visit one of the Smoky Mountain’s many distilleries that offer live music and moonshine tastings.
Find a Festive Gift
The orange is a common symbol for the return of the sun. Orange pomanders are traditionally given as gifts on the solstice to symbolize nature and the returning light. Visit the charming shops in any of the small towns throughout the Smokies to find wreaths and decorations to celebrate the winter solstice, give as gifts, and decorate and freshen your home during the holidays.
Immerse Yourself in Nature on a Winter Hike
The winter solstice is a time to celebrate the natural world, so why not take an invigorating winter hike through the Smokies? Head up to Andrews Bald to take in spectacular 360-degree views and enjoy the crisp mountain air. Or hike to gorgeous cascading waterfalls, like Laurel Falls or Rainbow Falls, that turn into glistening dramatic ice formations during the winter.
Enjoy the Local Wildlife
While you’re out celebrating nature, keep your eyes peeled for local wildlife like bears, deer and wild turkey. Or venture into theremote Cataloochee Valley and discover one of the Smoky Mountains’ best kept secrets. Look for the herd of wild elk grazing in open areas at the edge of the forest with the snow capped mountains as a backdrop.
Light a Yule Log
After all that hiking, warm up by lighting a yule log in your cozy Smoky Mountain cabin. In winter tradition, the yule log is a unique log that’s lit on the night of the winter solstice, or Yule. The ritual lighting of the yule log is performed to help reignite the sun. The fire burns all night long, symbolizing the darkness on the longest night of the year. Fun fact: the Yule Log was originally an entire tree, that was carefully chosen and brought into the house with grand ceremony. And traditionally, families would keep a piece of the yule log to help ignite the next winters’ fire.
Meditate and Set Intentions for Next Year
Take some time on the longest night of the year to reflect on what you hope to gain and give in this new season and the coming year. Yule is a time to celebrate the light and darkness both within us and surrounding us. Meditation can help to bring the light of awareness into the darkness.