ev0ke’s Midwinter Recommended Reading (and Watching!) List — 2020 Edition

Image courtesy of Drew Coffman on Unsplash

Walk into any bookstore or library at this time of year — or flip on the television — and you will find no shortage of Christmas-oriented novels, short stories, graphic novels. Holiday fare geared towards Pagans is a bit harder to come by, but it does exist. Below are a few of my favorites, though this is by no means a complete list. Please feel free to share some of your suggestions in the comments, and, in the meanwhile, check out some of these television specials, television series, books, and graphic novels.

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Chasing the Equinox is a National Geographic special. Yes, okay, technically it’s about the Equinox, not the Solstice. But it does an excellent job of showing the importance of the sun throughout human history, and how different cultures across time and across the globe recognized the sun’s centrality to human existence. Moving from Cambodia to India to Egypt to Malta to Ireland and across the ocean to North America, with archaeo-astronomers, archaeologists, egyptologists, and anthropologists discussing the different cultures and how they went about constructing sites as diverse as Anghor Was and the kivas of Chaco Canyon. Fascinating and educational.

The Dark Yule by RM Callahan is a curious, unique, and utterly engaging mix of Lovecraftian horror and feline antics. Pumpkin Spice is a Maine Coon cat whose witch has not been particularly witchy lately. So when strange temporal distortions and weird creatures begin to appear around Kingsport, it is up to Pumpkin Spice (and a few reluctant four-legged recruits) to save the world — before the Solstice. Highly entertaining and spooky.

Elsie and Pooka Stories of the Sabbats and Seasons: Winter by Lora Craig-Gaddis covers both Yule and Imbolc. It includes colorful illustrations, short essays and stories, recipes, and crafts. Perfect for all ages, for children playing alone, or for groups looking for activities to mark the holy day together.

Fireside Stories: Tales for a Winter’s Eve and/or While the Bear Sleeps: Winter Tales and Traditions by Caitlin Matthews. A well-known scholar, folklorist, and Celticist, Matthews draws upon cultures from around the world as she spins fables and explores the origins of different celebrations, including Kwanzaa, Candlemas, Hanukkah, and Solstice, among others. Great for multi-trade households or those who are curious about other holy days.

Grandmother Winter and Lucia and the Light, both written by Phyllis Root, but illustrated by Beth Krommes and Mary GrandPre, respectively, are contemporary folktales. The first offers a gentle explanation for the season of winter, inviting children to celebrate rather than mourn the snow and the cold. The second features a child protagonist who braves the cold, the dark, and troll-infested mountains to rescue the sun. These are great snuggle-under-the-blanket reads.

Hilda began as a graphic novel series by Luke Pearson; it has since come to encompass regular novels and an animated Netflix series, as well. The graphic novels (beautifully produced oversized hardcovers) are wonderfully illustrated, with the reader quickly falling in love with Hilda and her magical world. The animated series (drawn in a very similar style) is just as good, though it understandably leaves out some elements of the graphic novels do to time and production constraints. While none of the stories deal explicitly with the Solstice, I nonetheless recommend Hilda in any format as an antidote to the hyper-focus on Christmas during the season.

The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus (1985) is a stop-motion animated special based on a 1902 novel by L. Frank Baum. I fell in love with this story as a child, and one of these days I will get around to reading the original novel. There are wildwoods, nature spirits, fairies, a Green Man stand-in known as Great Ak, and a host of other spirits and immortals. With its message of kindness, compassion, and community, The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus will appeal to Pagans across a wide spectrum of tradition.

The Old Magic of Christmas: Yuletide Traditions for the Darkest Days of the Year by Linda Raedisch. As Raedisch notes in her introduction, it can be difficult for non-Christians to see their own Deities in the festivities, but “such a lengthy season demands a cast of thousands, and witches, trolls, and household sprites all have their part to play.” Here you will find elves, ghosts, Deities like Frigga and Odin, and mysterious figures like Befana. An engaging and insightful exploration of holiday traditions, with good suggestions for how non-Christians might also celebrate the season.

The Return of the Light: Twelve Tales From Around the World for the Winter Solstice by Carolyn McVickar Edwards collects a dozen solstice-centric stories, as well as rites and activities. Divided into three parts — The Theft, The Surrender, and The Grace — the collection moves from Polynesia to China to India to Africa to Europe and South America and back again. A lovely reminder that the Solstice is a complex holy day, one born of fear, grief, and joy.

Rupert’s Tales: The Wheel of the Year: Samhain, Yule, Imbolc, and Ostara by Kyrja with illustrations by Tonia Bennington Osborn. Rupert the bunny stars in nearly a dozen books, each centered around specific holidays and concepts (e.g., friendship, magic, tolerance, respect, et cetera). These books are a gentle, beautiful way to introduce children to the basics of the Wheel of the Year, as well as virtues and strengths to carry them through life.

The Shortest Day by Wendy Pfeffer and Jesse Reisch; and The Shortest Day by Susan Cooper and Carson Ellis; and The Winter Solstice by Ellen Jackson and Jan Davey work very well together. These three books — all beautifully illustrated and with clear text — explore the science behind the Solstice, as well as its cultural implications. Great for showing how science and spirituality can work together to enhance our understanding of the world and our place in it.

Sun Bread by Elisa Kleven is a delicious tale of community. In lilting text and warm illustrations, Kleven tells the story of a baker who misses the sun so much that she creates a special loaf of bread. The wonderful scent draws everyone together — even the sun. Kleven includes the recipe for little bakers who want to try it themselves (with adult supervision).

The Winter Riddle by Sam Hooker is a heck of a fun ride. Think of it as Norse mythology by way of Terry Pratchett and Monty Python, with a hefty dose of Dorothy Parker wit thrown in. It’s clever, convoluted, and snarky, but also soft-hearted because, really, the witch isn’t as tough or as misanthropic as she likes to pretend; she’s the hero of the story, whether she wants to be or not. (Hooker also contributed to the anthology, A Midnight Clear, which I have not had the chance to read yet.)

The Witch Boy / The Hidden Witch / The Midwinter Witch by Molly Knox Ostertag is a three volume graphic novel series. Aster is a young boy with a gift for magic. Unfortunately, in his society, magic is only for girls. Over the course of the series, he fights the oppressive binary gender norms of his people, finds allies, uncovers hidden threats, and comes into his own. A terrific read which shows us what can happen when we have the strength to be ourselves.

Yule: Rituals, Recipes, and Lore for the Winter Solstice by Susan Pesznecker is part of Llewellyn’s Sabbat Essentials series. These are good little primers that give a basic background on the holy day, with stories and myths, and suggestions for rites, crafts, food, and drink. A helpful guide to anyone new to Paganism, or who suddenly find themselves hosting a holiday gathering.

[Rebecca Buchanan is the editor of the Pagan literary ezine, Eternal Haunted Summer. A complete list of her published poems and stories can be found there.]