Alaska's shortest day is long on family-friendly ways to celebrate it

Winter solstice arrives in Alaska at 1:44 a.m. Wednesday, triggering a slow roll toward spring and beginning our deliverance from the long, dark season. A Latin phrase derived from "sol," meaning "sun," and "sistere," meaning "to stand still," winter solstice is the point at which Earth's tilted axis points Alaska and other northern latitudes farthest from the sun.

Solstice happens at the same time everywhere on the planet, but near the top of the globe in December, Earth's natural tilt of 23.5 degrees makes it very dark. Daylight varies according to latitude, and Alaska's size means different places receive varying amounts of sunlight, ranging from no sunlight at all in Utqiagvik and a paltry 1 hour, 41 minutes in Kotzebue — to a whopping 7 hours, 5 minutes in Ketchikan. Anchorage is somewhere in the middle, with 5 hours and 27 minutes of daylight Dec. 21, just enough to count as dusk when I pick up my son from school.

Historically, winter solstice was recognized most by the Scandinavian and Germanic people of Northern Europe, often through a 12-day celebration also known as Yule, or midwinter. The decorating of homes with greenery and lighting candles or fires in the frosty night air translated into the traditions of Christmas we know today, and it seems only right that we celebrate the coming of light in Alaska.

Festivities vary, ranging from bonfires in the backyard to overnights in the snow. Holly Hill, Anchorage mom of two teenage sons, has taken her boys to a yurt near Eagle River Nature Center every year since they were babies, establishing lifelong memories.

"We hike or ski out, then light bayberry candles to celebrate solstice, and relish in waking up to play around the trails of Eagle River," Hill says. "I never realized just how special it was to the boys until I saw that one of them had made our family trip photo his screensaver," she told me.

I'll admit that prior to moving here, winter solstice did not capture my family's attention the way it does now. Christmas, yes, and all the trappings that accompany it, but the days leading up to Dec. 21 were more about preparing for the 25th. So we, like many Alaska families I know, worked to change the focus to an outdoor-themed embrace of all things nature. It was easier than I thought, inexpensive, and thanks to support from many community organizations with the same idea, winter solstice has become a favored moment of serenity during an otherwise bustling season.

While many Alaska events took place last weekend to maximize participants, solstice proper happens Wednesday, so I took to social media to find out what others were planning for the shortest day of the year. Most parents wanted their kids to appreciate the natural light they receive on winter solstice without discounting the darkness that marks a natural passage of time. Getting outdoors, then, is the perfect way to commune with nature, using all five senses while snuggled together in the warmth of family time. Below are a few ideas that highlight winter, joy for the outdoors, and care for those around us.


Create something together

*Build a snow lantern by stacking snowballs in a pyramid shape with a tea light in the middle (a little spritz of water on our dry snow will help hold its shape). Create a bunch of them in your yard or at a park and light up the night.

*Create ice lanterns filled with greenery, berries or small twigs, making a festive, bright and welcoming flame for visitors. There are many online tutorials on ice lanterns, but the website Practically Functional offers several ways to vary the basic design. Tip: Start now if you want a lantern ready for solstice.

*Feed the birds with a handmade feeder created out of scooped-out oranges and seed. You can even string bird-friendly treats like peanuts, oat cereal, and cranberries on raffia or twine and hang on a suitable tree. Beforehand, contact your local feed store for the best varieties of seed and other food for wild birds. Alaska Mill and Feed is a good option.

Explore the night

*A hike or walk during the evening hours brings a sense of mystery to otherwise familiar surroundings. Find a group of friends, flashlights and headlamps, and hit your favorite local trail or park. Visit the Anchorage Park Foundation website for a list of places to visit. This is also a great opportunity to discuss situational awareness, and see if you can spot signs of wildlife. Create a scavenger hunt using the senses of hearing and touch for a unique twist on this favored outdoor activity. Warm up afterward with hot chocolate and cookies.

*Visit a local campground (Alaska State Park campgrounds are available for walk-in use during winter months with no fee. Just be sure to pack out all trash). Build a bonfire, roast marshmallows or sausages, heat up the cocoa, and light a few candles to honor winter solstice. If you have the skills and supplies for winter camping, pitch a tent for an adventurous overnight.

Gather for goodwill

*Host a solstice party at your house, then bundle up and go caroling through the neighborhood. My hometown did this for 30 years, including when I was a kid, and it is one of the strongest memories of the holidays I have. Bring candles, headlamps, bells and simple song sheets.

*Attend the Anchorage Parks and Recreation Solstice Celebration at Cuddy Family Midtown Park 5-8 p.m. Wednesday. There will be skating, sleigh rides, fat-tire biking, sledding and even snow yoga. All activities are free.

*The Tiny Trekkers outdoor group will host a walk to view holiday light displays on Wednesday evening. Suitable for smaller children, there will be glow sticks to carry and a toddler-friendly pace.

Erin Kirkland is author of "Alaska On the Go: Exploring the 49th State With Children," and publisher of AKontheGO.com, Alaska's family travel and outdoor recreation resource.