Saturday, December 21, 2013

Day 223 - Attending a Winter Solstice Celebration

I have never been to a winter solstice celebration. During a time of year when the days are short and the air is usually drenched in bitter cold, the idea of spending time outdoors with a group of people to celebrate the passing of the shortest day of the year hasn’t had much appeal to me. While I will be the first to admit I’m always been happy at the coming of longer days this time of year, the solstice has never been an event that I acknowledged in any formal way. In fact, I was happy to see it come and pass like any other day leading up to the holidays, which meant I had no intention of standing out in the cold to celebrate the day’s coming and going. Warmth and comfort among the quiet of the shortest day was fine with me, and I had no intention of changing that perspective.

Of course, in a year of new experiences I have been pressed to move outside of my routines in many ways, and the coming of the winter solstice this year was no exception to that pattern. Over a month ago Rachael made me aware of a winter solstice bonfire held each year in Madison, which piqued my curiosity enough to beginning investigating the annual event. After a little research, I discovered a full winter solstice celebration was held each year at Olbrich Park, a location nestled on the shores of Lake Monona in Madison. With food, drink, and various events included in the event, I realized the experience would likely be worth facing the cold to welcome the first official days of winter. As a result, I set aside time in my calendar to attend my first winter solstice celebration this afternoon, even if it brought with it a little bit of a chill.

After throwing on several layers and some sturdy boots this afternoon, Rachael and I drove to nearby Olbrich Park just before the celebration began at sunset. When we arrived a crowd of over 100 people stood in the shin-deep snow around a circle of ice sculptures ringing a massive pile of pine trees. The group milled about the space of the park sipping on hot cocoa and nibbling at chili between conversations with those around them. Despite the cold, the group was cheery and excited, which made it easy to get comfortable as we acquainted ourselves with the surroundings. A few minutes after arriving, Rachael and I had a cup of hot cocoa in hand and had found a position near the inner circle of the gathering crowd of people. Doing our best to keep warm, we nestled up to one another and chatted about to goings-on around us until night fell and the event staff moved to light the solstice bonfire.


In a broad sweeping movement around the pile of pine trees a small group of people led two men to the back of the pile of Christmas trees in preparation for the bonfire. Before the pile was lit, a woman donned in a variety of scarves and bells danced and a man carrying an oversized effigy of a man walked near the crowd as a small group of people sang a solstice themed song built around the tradition. Once finished, the group moved into the crowd to let the two men follow through with the lighting of the bonfire. Slowly, the two men spurred a flame into a building ball of fire at the end of a stick, which was then placed into the side of the stacked pine trees. In a matter of moments the mound of wood erupted into billowing flames that quickly consumed the mass of dried pine boughs.

The fire at its peak

With fire reaching high into the sky the crowd around us gathered closer to the fire to pull from its abundant warmth. Smiles and laughter were commonplace as the crowd gathered, acknowledging the fire was a symbol of the coming and going of the long, dark days of winter. Amid the coming cold of the night, the group was happy to take in the beauty of the fire and to spend time enjoying the winter as it burned its way toward a pile of embers. It was clear by the happenings around us the celebration was on, and everyone in attendance was happy to be a part of it.

The solstice crowd

After the bulk of the pine burned to a more moderately sized bonfire, members of the crowd began to disperse to a variety of different activities occurring on the outside of the ring of people huddled around the fire. A small group of people prepared paper lanterns for flight over Monona, and two members of the crowd began fire dancing with torches tied to the ends of chains. The added features of the celebration boosted the jovial spirits of the already festive crowd and offered yet more interesting ways to recognize the passage of the solstice. Intrigued by the activity around us, Rachael and I took time to wander around the outside of the central gathering point around the fire and take in these more unique aspects of the event.

Letting the lantern fly

As we moved to the open area of the snow covered park, my eyes remained fixed on the glowing balls of light emanating from the small group of people preparing a paper lantern for flight. As the group let it loose, Rachael and I watched briefly as the lantern carried into the hazy winter sky, which prompted us to turn our attention to the nearby fire dancers. Mesmerizing in their actions, the pair of dancers swung their flame-tipped chains in arcing patterns against the backdrop of dormant trees and a sled track laden snow hill. For minutes Rachael and I stood by, following the flames as they moved. The moment was simultaneously exciting and beautiful, which forced smiles onto our faces as Rachael and I stood ankle deep in the previously untouched powder that had fallen on the park some days earlier.

Fire dancers...

...Painting the night sky

When the first of the fire dancing displays came to an end, Rachael and I moved back toward the fire to warm ourselves. With the fire quickly dwindling to a small pile of embers and flame, I turned my attention to the crowd around us. Although I could feel the cold beginning to set in, the sight of the people and the ongoing activities in the park made me happy I had taken time to experience the winter solstice festival. The joy and sense of togetherness that came with the event made it clear my previous perspective on hunkering down indoors and treating the day as a passing occurrence would have left me without a memorable winter event spent with some terrific people. While I’m sure Rachael and I would have been happy enough to avoid cold hands and feet, the solstice bonfire and the experiences that came with it made every cold digit worth it.

Today’s experience was an obvious reminder of why I originally decided to embark on my “I have never...” journey. By challenging my tendency to prefer the warmth and comfort of home in the early days of winter, I was able to experience an event that stands out among Madison’s holiday traditions. Where I would have otherwise been cringing at the thought of the first day of winter, I found myself among a crowd of people joyful, buoyant people celebrating the coming of longer days. That concept says a lot about the benefit of taking on another new experience today, and it just might serve as a suitable metaphor for the change I have experienced since this journey began. One thing is for sure, seven months into this year it is clear I am not the person I once was, and days like today remind me of how that shift is making me a better person.

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