December 2006 Issue
The winter solstice is cause for outdoor celebration.
It may look like a white robe left over from someone's graduation. But after Denise Wolfe nips there, tucks here, adds a sprig or two of holly and slips it on, it becomes a magical link to a mystical night.
For five years, Wolfe has portrayed a druid in the Geauga Park District's winter solstice celebration, a festival welcoming the longest night of the year with songs of the season, feasting and plenty of good cheer, helped along by a seemingly endless supply of hot cider.
Since 1989, the park district has hosted this event, heralding the onset of winter and anticipating the return of the sun after prolonged periods of darkness. This year, the solstice and celebration occur on December 21.
"It's important to remind people that spring will come again, that there's still life out there," says Wolfe, whose role as a druid during the celebration explains the traditions practiced by the ancient priests of Celtic Britain and Ireland, who decorated oak trees with golden apples and candles to represent harvest and light.
You don't need to be an avid winter outdoor enthusiast to appreciate the festivities. Many a cold-weather couch potato, especially those already wrestling with the winter doldrums, wouldn't miss this annual celebration no matter what the barometric conditions. Judy Barnhart, the park district's nature education coordinator, recalls that the weather hasn't always been Currier & Ives perfect.
For instance, there was the time 10 years or so ago when a big storm dumped two feet of snow along the half-mile trail celebrants traverse. "Some of us spent hours before the event in a single-file line, tromping down the snow so people could walk the path," Barnhart recalls.
Through the years, more than 400 participants have congregated for the trip back in time, a history lesson filled with hands-on fun.
Barnhart begins with the basics, defining the winter solstice: It's the day on which the sun reaches its lowest point on the horizon, making it the shortest day of the year because it has the fewest hours of daylight. "There was a time [thousands of years ago] when people feared this time of year because they thought the sun was disappearing forever, and [believed] that if they didn't do something to bring it back, their life would be over," she explains.
And so commences the Geauga Park District's sampling of the century-old traditions that have evolved into beloved hallmarks of the season.
Luminarias light the way to the Yule log, the importance of which is attributed to the Scandinavian people. The thinking, says Barnhart, was that the bigger the log, the more good fortune would fall throughout the coming year. According to tradition, the log should burn continuously throughout the 12 days of Christmas to ward off evil spirits and guarantee the death of darkness. Custom dictates that a bit of the wood -- usually oak, a symbol of strength -- be saved to start next year's fire.
Solstice revelers are invited to search for the perfect Yule log, which in the park's case is a 4-footer that has been cut and strategically placed for easy access.
"We get participants to role play, asking them if they want to decorate it with evergreen or kiss it for good luck," Barnhart explains.
The Romans celebrated with Saturnalia, a feast to Saturn, the god of agriculture. They adorned their homes with mistletoe and their heads with holly wreaths, since these hardy plants survived the harsh winter and symbolized life.
"They also decorated their homes with candles thought to chase away the dark winter demons and coax the sun back into the sky," Barnhart says. "Since it's good luck to receive light from someone else, we give everyone a candle. It's a very moving experience to see the light spread throughout the crowd."
Hertha, the German goddess of the home, is also in attendance, complete with flowing blond hair and dazzling gold dress, thanks to the talents of a costumed interpreter.
"The Germans would lay out big, flat stones and boughs of fir in front of the fire," Barnhart says. "They would light the branches, and the rising smoke would welcome Hertha and good fortune into the house. That's where the idea of having a hearthstone in front of the fireplace comes from."
The evening is capped off with a massive bonfire guaranteed to chase the Frost Giant away, and a visit from Santa and an apprentice elf, who recount the story of how the first Christmas tree came to the United States from Germany.
"Our event truly gets people in the spirit of the season," Barnhart says. "We have families who have made it a tradition that grows bigger with each generation."
Also on December 21, the Cuyahoga Valley National Park Association is hosting its inaugural winter solstice observance, Festival of Lights, a night filled with global customs and featuring a hearty winter buffet.
Participants are invited to sample sweet rolls like those served on St. Lucia Day in Sweden, during which girls wear crowns of evergreens and candles to rekindle the sun's fire and deliver warm buns to family and friends. They also learn the seven principles of Kwanzaa (a derivative of the African word meaning "first fruits of the harvest"), and discover the meaning of the eight-candle Hanukkah menorah as well as the wonder of Thailand's Loy Krathong Festival, in which small boats made from banana leaves, lotus flowers and candles are launched for good luck.
As program coordinator Chelsea Cohen says, "The focus is really on lights and how people used them in the winter months."
WHEN YOU GO...
Geauga Park District Winter Solstice Celebration
Dec. 21, 7:30-9:30 p.m.
The Rookery's Great Blue Heron Lodge, 10110 Cedar Rd., Munson Township, 440/286-9516. www.geaugaparkdistrict.org. Free admission
Cuyahoga Valley National Park Association Festival of Lights
Dec. 21, 6-9:30 p.m.
Environmental Education Center, 3675 Oak Hill Rd., Peninsula, 800/642-3297, ext. 100. www.cvnpa.org. Admission: ages 12 and older $14, ages 5-11 $10.