Leo's second-grade class saw a performance of Seasons of Light at the Smithsonian's Discovery Theater this morning (I saw it with them). The program is about the history and customs of winter holidays (mostly religious holidays) celebrated around the world, and emphasizes how all of the holidays have to do with light: light from the sun, the stars, candles and oil lamps. The learning guide for Seasons of Light contains information on the winter solstice and on all of the holidays presented in the program.
At home, we read The Shortest Day: Celebrating the Winter Solstice by Wendy Pfeffer (illustrated by Jesse Reisch; Dutton, 2003). This book explains, in language even Milly can understand, how and why the days grow shorter as winter approaches, what the winter solstice is, and how that day (and night) has been marked and celebrated by different cultures (Egyptian, Chinese, Incan, and European) throughout history. The emphasis here is on the scientific, not the religious. The activity suggestions for the shortest day sometimes span the days and weeks surrounding it, such as making a winter sunrise/sunset chart (we did this last year, looking in the newspaper for the times) and measuring shadows. My favorite suggestion: have a winter solstice party! Or two: one for you, with yellow-frosted sun cupcakes and candles, and one for the birds.
Look for these collections of stories to read around the time of winter solstice (I'm still looking for them myself, actually!):
The Return of the Light: Twelve Tales from Around the World for the Winter Solstice by Carolyn McVickar Edwards (Second edition; Marlow and Co., 2005). For grownups.
Fireside Stories: Tales for a Winter's Eve by Caitlin Matthews; illustrated by Helen Cann (Barefoot Books, 2007). We would love a copy of this book; unfortunately, our library doesn't hold it yet. Barefoot's themed collections are very nice, and this one looks perfect for cozy read-alouds.