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Earth Matters

Earth Matters: What Are You Doing Solstice Eve?

by Susan Hellauer

Earth Matters focuses on conservation, sustainability, recycling and healthy living. This weekly series is brought to you by Maria Luisa Boutique and Strawtown Studio and Blue Rock School and Dying To Bloom, a natural burial boutique for humans and pets.
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It’s happening again. This Friday, December 21—the shortest day and longest night of the year in the Northern Hemisphere—the sun (sol in Latin) will stand still (sistere) before reversing course to rise a little higher and shine a little longer each day for the next six months, promising warmth, crops, and survival for another year.

Well, that’s how it looked to late Stone Age astronomers, and this solar standstill-and-return merited a lot of sweat, toil, and ritual. Narrow openings between massive stone pillars of the 5,000-year-old Neolithic Stonehenge shrine in southern England align with the sun on both winter and summer solstices. At the slightly older Newgrange Tumulus near the east coast of Ireland, the rays of the winter solstice sunrise unfailingly pierce through a roofbox opening and long passageway, flooding an inner sanctuary chamber with light. In fact, an annual lottery is held to choose 60 lucky winners (out of about 30,000 entries) to experience the New Solar Year inside the chamber.

By the end of fifth grade, we’ve all learned about how the earth rotates on a tilted axis as it revolves around the sun. We don’t need Stonehenge or Newgrange to know that nature will send the sun back once more to sustain us. But even as our first-world existence separates us more and more from nature, a growing number of people are looking for ways to protect and reconnect with the earth, to express wonder at its mysteries and gratitude for its gifts of rebirth. Here’s how some of your neighbors are doing just that this winter solstice season, and how you can too.


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Newgrange tumulus winter solstice

Above the Newgrange burial mound’s entrance door is an open “roofbox” that admits at sunrise on winter solstice a ray of light that penetrates a long passageway and illuminates the back wall of the inner sanctum for 17 minutes. Photos and diagram via Wikimedia Commons

A shaman’s solstice

Nyack has at least one resident shaman. That’s Mikki Baloy, and she greets the winter solstice—and the other astronomical “quarter days”—with earth- and spirit-centered activities. “I lead ceremonies on the quarters (solstices and equinoxes) at the Unitarian church in Pomona— frequently fire ceremonies, which are meant to be inclusive and non-denominational,” she told Earth Matters. “These are consistent, recognizable times to do such ceremonies, and it happens across many cultures.”

Baloy also pointed out that we can recognize and harmonize with solstice amid our own Christmas holiday traditions. “Our modern Christmas lights remind us, during this darkest time of the year, that the sun will return soon. Bringing evergreens indoors is a reminder of hope, and our connection to nature.” She suggested that simply recognizing and talking about these things as a family (or on your own) could be rich additions to whatever else you celebrate. “Small traditions survive because they show how all of us are inextricably linked to the elements and the cycles of nature.”

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Shaman Mikki Baloy (foreground) leads a fire ceremony at the Universalist Unitarian Congregation in Pomona: Photo courtesy Mikki Baloy

And there’s a connection with those New Year’s resolutions as well. “The winter, and especially the Solstice, is traditionally the time of going inward, slowing down, and inventorying our lives, and how we’d like to change or grow in the new year,” said Baloy.

Solstice in spiritual harmony

What about solstice celebrations for members of mainstream religions? Earth Matters reached out to Nyack resident Father Richard Gressle, long-time rector (retired since 2012) of Nyack’s Grace Episcopal Church. He once conducted a farewell ritual for an old and beloved oak tree on Grace’s property that needed to come down, so his harmony-with-nature credentials seemed solid.

“Human experience has now distanced itself  from the cycle of seasons,” said Gressle, who pointed out that the Industrial Revolution and its “culture of exploitation” has given capitalism the spiritual wherewithal to raise the despoiling of the environment to a virtue. “Few people in the secular culture would affirm that our human vocation is co-creation with a Creator no matter how you name that One,” he added.

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Fr. Richard Gressle unlights a birthday candle at Grace Episcopal Church in 2010. Photo: Steven P. Marsh

Gressle said that he tries to celebrate all the major Celtic holidays, both the saints’ days and the seasonal calendar. “On the winter solstice I will light sage and travel to every room reciting a prayer for the coming of spring—and hoping that grim February and cold March are declared a ‘pass’—but that won’t happen. Then at the front door I face all four directions of the compass, and that’s about it.”

But can Father Gressle really blend the old “earth days” with modern spiritual practice? “I think perhaps I am trying to harmonize Judeo-Christian understanding with the emotion of the seasonal (‘pagan’ if you like), but that remains to be seen. The God of history will always be in tension with the Goddess of the seasons, and maybe that’s for the best,” he said. 

Better to light a candle

Last Saturday afternoon, Nyack’s own Strawtown Studio (an Earth Matters sponsor) led a “Lighting Up Solstice” community art event at Upper Nyack’s Marydell Faith and Life Center, sponsored by the Palisades Parks Conservancy. At long tables in a cozy cabin, dozens of children and adults were making solstice light sculptures using votive candles, art supplies, and natural elements they’d picked up on a walk through Marydell’s woods and fields.

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Ten-year-old Olivia Rose (foreground) was eager to describe her solstice art: “ I added shells to my Lumina to represent the element of water.” Seven-year-old sister Rebecca, (top) chimed in: “I love Primus ‘cause I love nature!”  Photo: Susan Hellauer

But for New City resident Laura Rose and her daughters Olivia and Rebecca, this was much more than an afternoon of craftmaking fun. They were also creating something essential for an annual family holiday. “Winter solstice is also the first day of the Holiday of Primus—the Festivus For the Rest of Us,” Rose said. “It’s one of four solar-based holidays of Vibrationalism, a contemporary spiritual movement based on honoring the natural world.”

A “Lumina” is the main centerpiece of Primus, Rose explained, with a candle lit to honor each of the “prime,” or fundamental, elements of nature: earth, air, water, fire and metal. Over the first five days of the solstice, gifts are exchanged, with each day’s gifts incorporating one of these elements. “And as part of the celebration, each person, young or old, shares words to express thankfulness for each natural element, and actionable ways they can help sustain natural ecosystems that hold these elements.”

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Olivia Rose and her family’s Primus luminaries created at the Strawtown solstice event at Marydell Faith and Life Center. Photo: Susan Hellauer

Solstice in community

Light, hope, reflection, and celebration of the sun’s return has persisted since Stonehenge and Newgrange. In the Western world alone, Hannukah, Roman Saturnalia, Norse Yule, Midwinter, Christmas, and modern New Year’s Day, all cluster around the winter solstice. So why not start a solstice tradition of your own? Take a walk and notice signs of the winter solstice in nature. Or burn a Yule log, light a candle, share a meal, help the needy.

Or find a community celebration. There’s the big one, of course, at New York City’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine, where saxophonist Paul Winter has been leading the extravagant festivities since 1980. The original premise, according to Winter, was harmony with the earth:

The dean [of the cathedral] had a personal mission to create a bridge between spirituality and ecology. He appreciated our music, but I think it was the ecological dimension of our repertoire that convinced him we could be part of the Cathedral.

The Paul Winter Consort will present four shows this year on December 20, 21, and 22.

The Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Pomona will mark the winter solstice with a traditional Solstice Despacho Ceremony, led by Mikki Baloy, on December 21 from 6p-8p. All are welcome to participate.

The Rockland Count Vibrationalist Awareness Center in New City will hold its annual Primus Community Celebration on Friday December 21, 4:30p at Creiff Lane in New City. All are welcome.

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Earth Matters, a weekly feature that focuses on conservation, sustainability, recycling and healthy living, is sponsored by Maria Luisa Boutique, Dying to Bloom, Strawtown Studio, and Blue Rock School.

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