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Celebrating the Winter Solstice
Darkness Turns to Light

David Coffin, leading the chorus–and the audience–in song at the end of The Christmas Revels.

From the beginning of humanity, people have marveled at and celebrated winter solstice, the turning of the year. Without the benefits of electric light and modern communications, but with attentive observation, ancient peoples followed the cycles of the sun on which they depended for light, warmth, and food. The earliest humans and those who followed, including Egyptians, Persians, Romans, and Greeks, revered the day on which the sun’s decline ceased, and the lengthening days held the promise of spring and rebirth.

Winter solstice, from the Latin sol for sun and sistere, to stand still, is the first day of winter in the Northern Hemisphere, and usually occurs on the 21st of December. Days grow shorter from the autumnal equinox on September 21st when hours of daylight roughly equal night. In Wellesley and Weston (at roughly 42.3 N latitude), the sun will rise on December 21, 2009 at 7:11 am, and set at 4:16 pm, giving us nine hours of daylight. Fifteen hours of darkness will provide ample time to dream of sugarplums or warm, sandy beaches.

While some suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) or winter depression, many who live in New England–with four distinct seasons–relish the opportunity to head indoors to nest or hibernate. Midwinter is a time to pull the family together, curl up with a book, and cook hearty, comfort food. We counter the dark with holiday preparations that include candles and twinkling lights, familiar carols, festive parties, and travel to family gatherings. As winter deepens, we enjoy sledding, skating and skiing.

A scene from a German folk dance in The Christmas Revels.

Earth’s elliptical orbit around the sun, and its rotational tilt at 23.5 degrees, create the seasons. At the summer solstice on the 21st of June, the North Pole is tilted at its maximum toward the sun, and the Northern Hemisphere gets more, and more direct, sunlight. Inhabitants of the Southern Hemisphere, in turn, experience winter. In December, the North Pole and Northern Hemisphere are tilted away from the sun, resulting in colder temperatures and less sunlight.

Earth’s orbit brings us closer to the sun in December than in June, but the angle of sunlight we receive causes temperatures to be colder. “Picture a flashlight shining on graph paper”, says Weston 8th grade Earth Science teacher Janice Corley. “Hold the flashlight directly above the graph paper and a circle of light is created. Hold the flashlight at an angle of 30 degrees, and the same light covers a much wider area, giving less heat and less light.”

In the third and fourth grades, Wellesley and Weston public school students study the length of days and the seasons. In eighth and ninth grade science, they track daylight hours and touch upon the solstice. Coming to school, and finishing soccer practice in the dark, probably do more to bring home the concept.

The Abbots Bromley Horn Dance dates back to the 13th century, and is a ritual dance performed to a haunting melody as “good luck” to the villagers preparing for the hunting season. The dance is still performed annually in the English village of Abbots Bromley, where it is reported to have originated.

Astronomy professor Wendy Hagen-Bauer says Wellesley College students don’t have a moment to notice winter solstice. They are frantically finishing final exams and packing or have already left for winter break. Those who take her course, “Motions in the Sky: Archaeoastronomy and the Copernican Revolution,” will make some observations of the sunset. The course is offered in the spring semester, so observations can be made when deciduous trees are bare.

Gardeners and farmers also take note of the sun’s movement. Madeleine Mullin, local history librarian at Weston Public Library, has gardened at the same home in Weston for 30 years. She keeps The Old Farmer’s Almanac handy. “It’s dramatic how much the sun moves each day and how the shadows in my yard change,” she says. “My predecessors were farmers; I must carry those genes.”

Mullin has visited Newgrange, the Stone Age observatory in County Meath, Ireland, that captures the winter solstice sunrise, channeling only the first few minutes of dawn’s light through a narrow opening into the central passage and chamber of the man-made hilltop cave. This ancient sky-watchers’ monument, dating from 3200 BC, is a UNESCO World Heritage site. “Newgrange is older than Stonehenge,” Mullin notes, “and incredible to visit.”

The Boar’s Head Carol, from Oxford, England, is performed in a showing of The Christmas Revels.

For farmers, midwinter is “a welcome time,” says Weston’s Brian Donahue, professor of American Studies at Brandeis University, and author of Reclaiming the Commons (Quest Books, 2003). Farmers rest from heavy outdoor work and prepare for the coldest weather and heaviest snow that lie ahead. Donahue brings his sheep into the barn for the winter, and cuts wood for three stoves. He loves midwinter’s evening light. “We make it warm and cheerful inside and sit around the fire,” he says. “Then we head out to cut a Christmas tree.”

Donahue notes that the earliest sunset and latest sunrise are offset from the solstice. According to The Old Farmer’s Almanac, the earliest sunset this winter will occur at 4:13 pm, from December 3 through 13, and the latest sunrise at 7:14 am, from December 30 through January 7, 2010.

Many gardeners shift their attention indoors, pruning evergreens (through the ages, a symbol of rebirth) to decorate the house, forcing paper-white narcissus that hint of snow, or, as Wellesley resident Helen Stock does, potting amaryllis bulbs in early November. Stock and her daughter, Meredith, tend them for weeks, presenting plants ready to bloom to teachers and friends.

Decorating the home with yew and holly, giving gifts, and gathering with family and friends, are customs that date from the earliest times. On the fourth Sunday before Christmas Eve, the Christian season of Advent (“coming” or “arrival”) begins. In many homes, an Advent wreath of evergreen, set on a table with four candles, is lighted sequentially week by week. On Sunday, the 29th of November this year, the Stocks will bring out their nativity scene, placing figurines of the three Wise Men at the far corners of the room, moving them closer to the crèche each day, until December 24, when Christians begin to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, “the light of the world.”

Families with children can celebrate the winter solstice at Drumlin Farm.

The Jewish holiday, Hanukkah, the eight-day festival of lights, occurs between the 2nd and 31st of December each year. Hanukkah commemorates for Jews the lighting of the menorah in the Temple of Jerusalem, and it begins this year on December 11. Weston resident Joyce Pastor loves this joyful holiday that celebrates “the light within, the godliness in each of us,” as seven candles are lighted sequentially with songs and blessings.

The winter solstice gained new meaning in 2006, when Pastor’s first grandchild was born on the seventh day of Hanukkah, December 21. “She and her sister have brought tremendous light into our lives,” Pastor says. Midwinter is a great time to have a baby, says Janice Corley, whose son, Cullen, was born on the 18th of December. Madeleine Mullin’s daughter, Louisa, was born on June 22, when the glorious days of summer, gently growing shorter, lie ahead.

Lucia, the “Queen of Light,” with her attendants.

Islam follows the lunar calendar, which moves ahead by 11 days each year, so Muslim holidays cycle through all months. The rhythm of daily life is controlled by the seasons. Morning prayers must be said before the sunrise, so near summer solstice one wakes early. At winter solstice, when the sun rises close to 7:00 am, one can sleep later. The last prayer of the day, said before going to bed but after the sky is dark, occurs no earlier than 9:00 or 10:00 pm in summer, but as early as 7:30 pm in December.

When Ramadan falls in midwinter, the month of fasting is easier, notes Weston’s Habib Rahman. Rahman’s favorite season is fall, when New England weather and foliage are most beautiful. For his family, autumn culminates in Thanksgiving, when 20 to 30 family members and friends gather at their table. “If you believe in a Supreme Power, you must believe that he gives us winter and the seasons for a reason,” he says.

Solstice celebrations keep us close to the seasons, says Joan Parrish, who moved to Weston from Florida as an adult. To adapt to New England winters, she gathered friends to mark time in a more natural way, and asked her guests to share what brought light into their lives. Anne Igoe celebrated winter solstice with friends at a farm in Franklin, Massachusetts. “In a circle of tall pines, we gathered around a fire to say goodbye to the setting sun,” she says. Following Native American tradition, they faced the four compass directions and acknowledged earth, air, fire and water. “We wrote on slips of paper something we would like to be free of and placed these papers in the fire.”

The Swedish Yuletide Fair will be held in Boston at the Cyclorama on the 5th of December.

Winter solstice is celebrated in Swedish homes, schools, and offices with the traditional Lucia procession. The Swedish Womens’ Educational Association (SWEA) gives the public a chance to share this tradition at its annual Swedish Yuletide fair, held in Boston this year at the Cyclorama on the 5th of December. Leading the procession is the girl chosen to be Lucia, the “Queen of Light,” wearing a white robe and red sash, her head crowned with candles to bring light and joy to the dark midwinter. Younger children follow along, singing Lucia songs and bearing candles, with white-robed girls as her attendants, and boys as star-boys and brownies.

St. Lucia Day is officially celebrated on December 13, which was the winter solstice in the Julian calendar used in Sweden before 1753. The saffron buns and ginger crisps, traditionally served with coffee, will be available at the fair, together with Swedish crafts, foods, and activities for children. “Christmastime is Yuletide for Swedes,” says Ginga Sewerin-Olsson of Wellesley, Vice Consul for Sweden in New England. “In most of Sweden it is dark until 9:00 am, so it’s a lovely way to begin the day and kick off Christmas,” she notes. Children from the Swedish School of Boston, which meets in Weston, will perform in the processions.

Solstice Celebrations
and Resources



Families with children can also “celebrate the turning of the wheel of the year” at Drumlin Farm in Lincoln, Massachusetts, on December 18. Solstice celebrations will include ancient folktales, a blazing fire, candle-making, and visiting the farm animals in their barns.

The penultimate public celebration of winter solstice, The Christmas Revels, was begun in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1971, by musician and educator John Langstaff. There are now nine production companies throughout the country. “Revels is an antidote to commercialism, a reminder that it isn’t all about credit cards,” says artistic director Patrick Swanson. The 2009 Revels will celebrate North America, incorporating solstice traditions in music, singing, and dance from Native Americans, Appalachia, the Shakers, the African American South, and New England.

Susan Kemp, of Wellesley, has been an office volunteer since the 1970s. She likes Revels’ strong emphasis on family and community in script and casting. “The process of daylight time growing shorter and shorter while darkness grows longer and longer, and the reverse, beginning at the winter solstice, has always been a marvel,” she says.

Holiday preparations and celebrations may somewhat overshadow, but the winter solstice offers an opportunity to remember our earth and the sun, around which we travel. As we wrap tangible gifts, we might remember the gift of the sun’s light that sustains us, wherever and whoever we are. May the darkness that balances the light give each of us rest and rebirth, and a deep sense of gratitude.

Carolyn S. Ellis lives in Weston. She gave birth to her daughter on December 21.



© 2009 Elm Bank Media