Winter Solstice as Writing Inspiration

I am reprinting last year’s Writing in Time as I attempt to finish my WIP by Dec. 7.

Christmas overshadows every other December holiday in America. Yet the winter solstice is the reason we celebrate Christmas in this month. Both the history and nature of the shortest day of the year can provide ideas for using the winter solstice as writing inspiration.

Many ancient cultures, according to The Christmas Encyclopedia by William D. Crump, figured out which day in the northern hemisphere had the shortest amount of daylight, all without the help of computers. Babylonians, Syrians, Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, pre-Christian Celtic and Germanic tribes celebrated this time of year. Egyptians commemorated the birth of Ra, the sun god. Babylonians and Syrians saw the solstice as a symbol of returning fertility to the land. During the Celtic and Germanic holiday of Yule, noisy celebrations warded off evil spirits that roamed in the darkness.

In a brilliant move of counter-programming, the Catholic Church decided to celebrate Jesus’ birth in December and compete against pagan holidays. We still use some of the pagan traditions. Christianity has given them new meanings to pagan customs, like lighting candles and decorating with evergreens.

The juxtaposition of the most hours of darkness and the happiest holiday on the Christian calendar makes a great symbol for the journey of a character. As December grows darker, the character experiences more and more adversity, hitting bottom on the day of the solstice. Then on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, hope is restored. The day with the most darkness is also a fitting setting for the climax of a thriller or mystery. The hero and villain confront each other on a night when evil seems to be at the height of its powers.

For speculative fiction, a villain reaches her most powerful state during the winter solstice. The hero, whose powers are at their weakest, must come up with a way to stop the villain from taking advantage of the solstice.

How can you use the winter solstice as writing inspiration?

Writing Tip — Holiday Folklore as Writing Inspiration

christmas-w3797415_1280If you want to combine Christmas or New Year’s Day with speculative fiction, or to give any story a touch of magic or wonder, researching the folklore surrounding the holidays may provide the spark you need to ignite a story.

Many, many superstitions are attached to these holidays at the end of the year. This is probably because Europeans held on to some pagan beliefs as they converted on Christianity. In Celtic lands, the winter solstice was a time to be on guard against evil spirits, who were said to roam the long nights. Ancient Celts lit bonfires and made noise to scare them away. (Side note: Celts also believed evil spirits were out and about during the fall celebration of Samhain, the holiday from which Halloween derives its origin. I get the impression that it was no picnic to be ancient Celt.)

This fear of evil spirits may have led to the English tradition of telling ghost stories on Christmas Eve. I believe that may have influence Charles Dicken’s decision to use ghosts to haunt Scrooge in A Christmas Carol.

The Christmas Encyclopedia by William D. Crump (the link is to a newer edition than I have) lists many superstitions from various countries. Here are a few.

“A child born a Christmas Eve or Christmas Day will have good fortune.”

“A child born during the twelve nights of Christmas may become a werewolf. (Germany and Poland)”

“From cockcrow until dawn on Christmas Day, trolls roam the land. (Sweden)”

“A windy Christmas Day brings good luck.” Our Christmas Eve was foggy from dawn until Christmas morning. I have not idea what that means.

In my YA mystery, “A Rose from the Ashes”, I refer to the Christmas legend. Early Christmas morning, under an almost full moon in the clear, frozen dark, Rae Riley confronts the three men who are the only candidates to be her father and her mother’s attacker. The moon gilds everything, giving the land and everyone under it a magical appearance. Rae says she believes animals could speak on a night like this.

I couldn’t find a country of origin for the legend, but it states that because the animals in the stable were kind of Jesus at his birth, he granted them the ability to speak at midnight on every Christmas Day since them. I use the legend to underline the wonder Rae feels when she solves the mystery of her mother’s attack and her father’s identity.

A lot of superstitions deal with performing rituals to predict the future.

“On Christmas Eve, if an unmarried woman peels an apple, making sure it remains as a single ribbon, and if she throws it on the floor from above her head, the pattern of the peeling on the floor will disclose her future husband’s initials.”

What if a young woman performs this ritual and doesn’t like the initials she sees because she knows to whom they belong? Or what if such rituals are accurate but can only be performed by trained fortune tellers? In this world, the best fortune tellers run businesses and customers scramble to make appointments with them for New Year’s Eve and Day.

Another way to insure good luck for the coming year was to get the right person to enter the home after midnight on New Year’s Eve. This custom, called first-footing, was popular in Scotland and northern England. A powerful man with dark hair brought the best luck. Agatha Christie uses this superstition to help solve a ten-year-old death in the short story, “The Coming of Mr. Quin” in the book The Mysterious Mr. Quin.

Do you know of any holiday folklore in your community?

Writing Tip — Christmas Music as Writing Inspiration

pianow-3775191_1280-2My kids and I have broken out our collection of Christmas music and listen to it whenever we are in the car in December. I have a firm rule that we don’t listen to Christmas music until after Thanksgiving and we quit after New Year’s Day. So we need to cram in a lot of music in five weeks.

My kids have very different tastes in music. My oldest likes instrumental pieces almost to the exclusion of songs. My youngest finds music without lyrics boring. They agree on a few musical items. Slow tempo = bad. Fast tempo = usually good. Both of them like songs that tell a story, and they both like instrumental pieces by the Trans Siberian Orchestra.

When I drive my oldest to school, and we listen to  orchestral arrangements, my imagination thinks of the music as a soundtrack and tries to create a scene that suits it. One of our favorites is the piece by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, “Christmas Eve/ Sarajevo 12/24“. I always imagine some kind of fight scene to go with it. Another favorite is a fast-paced version of “God Read Ye Merry Gentlemen” by Mannheim Steamroller.

Songs also ignite my creative fire. The short story, “Mary, Did You Know”in Christmas fiction off the beaten path reminded me of this. This song inspired author Patricia Meredith to write a story about Mary’s first years as a parent of Jesus. She isn’t the only writer to find inspirations in Christmas songs.

Flipping through The Christmas Encyclopedia by William D. Crump, I find movies or TV shows inspired by “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear”, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas”, “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”, and “Good King Wenceslas”, which is a movie depicting a fictional version of the life of Vaclav the Good, who ruled Bohemia from 922-929.

I’ve always wanted to write a speculative fiction story, set in modern times, based on the verses of “Good King Wencelas”. I tried to write it as a flash fiction piece but couldn’t make it short enough and still produce a satisfying narrative. Maybe I should just write it out as long as I need to and then see if I can cut it down.

How does Christmas music as writing inspiration spark your imagination?

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