For some Mainers, the darkest winter nights are an excuse to curl up on the couch and hide away at home until the spring. For others, they are a cause for celebration.
On Dec. 21 in Bangor, the Old Farmer’s Almanac says the sun will rise around 7:09 a.m. and set at 3:57 p.m. With 8 hours and 47 minutes of daylight, this will be the shortest day of the year: the winter solstice.
The Unitarian Universalist Church in Belfast has been celebrating the winter solstice for more than two decades. The celebration, which usually sees between 100 and 200 attendees, involves singing, dancing and solstice rituals from the Anglo-Saxon pagan tradition.
This year, there will be an interactive reading of the “Wheel of the Year,” a traditional pagan story that celebrates the Earth’s annual journey around the sun. While the readers relay the tale, children from the congregation will be invited to act out the various stages of plants growing and seasons changing.
“The winter solstice is important to my congregation because we believe in and practice earth-based spirituality,” Gemma Perretta Scott, a church member who is the coordinator of this year’s celebration, said. “[The celebration] follows the theme of going into the darkness and then returning to the light.”
Growing in popularity
Though the winter solstice celebrations have long been important to Unitarian Universalist and Pagan faiths, winter solstice celebrations seem to be increasing in popularity in Maine.
“There seems to be an explosion this year. I have never seen this many out in the public,” Peralta said. “I think that there are more people seeking opportunities right now to connect to our inner faith and the Earth from which we come. I think that’s interesting.”
The Harpswell Heritage Land Trust Winter Solstice Lantern Walk is one of the newer celebrations. This will be the third year the organization holds the event at Houghton Graves Park in Harpswell. The festivities include a walk on a short, lantern-lined loop trail (the Harpswell Heritage Land Trust hosted a lantern-making workshop for attendees on Dec. 8), a bonfire, music and refreshments.
“It’s a way to celebrate the season, our sense of community and nature,” Julia McLeod, outreach coordinator at the Harpswell Heritage Land Trust, said. “It’s an excuse to get out and have a good time together outside.”
The rising prevalence in solstice celebrations could be, in part, due to Maine’s geography. Because Maine is so far north when compared to other areas of the continental United States, its winter days are exceptionally short.
“The winter solstice is such a dark time of year,” McLeod added. “People need some encouragement during this time of year sometimes.”
Bringing light to the darkest time of year
According to Evelyn Rysdyk, one of the owners of Spirit Passages, a Portland-based group offering shamanic services and workshops, celebrating the solstice is common in northern Europeans and Siberian cultures. Especially in areas where the sun disappears completely, the solstice marks the time when the sun will soon return.
“There’s that desire in the darkest part of the year to lighten our hearts, the sky, all of that is necessary this time of year,” Rysdyk said. “Some people honor the solstice as their new year.”
Spirit Passages and the Maine Audubon Society have been hosting their annual winter solstice celebration for over two decades at Gilsland Farm in Falmouth. Each year, they take a break from birding to reflect on the year that was while enjoying the warmth of the bonfire.
Spirit Passages leads a ritual based on ayni despacho, an Andean tradition of thanking the Earth. Participants contribute to a bundle of “gifts” (according to Rysdyk, they are symbolic objects with a focus around nature: cotton balls for clouds, animal crackers for animals, feathers for birds, and a blown egg to “represent the dreams that haven’t yet hatched”) that are burned in honor of the Earth. Attendees can also write their wishes for the new year on slips of paper and toss them in the bonfire.
Christmas and winter solstice revelers are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Linda Woodard, director of the Scarborough Marsh Audubon Center, believes the celebration serves a respite from the chaotic holiday season.
“It’s a busy, busy time in everyone’s life, so this is just a quiet reflection time,” Woodard said. “It’s very calming. It gives everyone a little time to reflect on what their connection is to nature.
In a similar vein, Maine Huts & Trails has been hosting an overnight winter solstice retreat for two years — this year, it will take place the weekend before the solstice — that involves snowshoeing and kripalu yoga.
“This time of the year presents so many things,” Kimberly Trukowski, the retreat guide and yoga instructor, said. “If people are feeling stressed about the holidays or time with family or the fact that the days are so short, it’s really a time to go inward and get prepared for more light.”
A reflection of Maine?
Even so, the shift towards the solstice could reflect larger religious trends in the state. Maine is predominantly Christian — 60 percent of Mainers identify as Christian according to a Pew Research Center poll — but it is also an increasingly secular state. The same Pew poll shows that 30 percent of Mainers claim no religious affiliation at all, compared to about 23 percent for the United States overall. Five percent of Mainers practice “Other Faiths,” including Unitarian, New Age and other faiths classified under religious liberalism.
The Temple of the Feminine Divine in Bangor, a legally recognized pagan religious institution, has been hosting an annual Yule celebration on the winter solstice for years, though its current administrator Jess Wade does not know exactly how long. She explained the Yule is one of the most important pagan holidays, next to Samahain in October. Wade says the Temple of the Feminine Divine’s founder, Kay Gardner, started the Yule celebration to bring “a public face to paganism” in the area. Though the ceremony is “different every year,” it is run by an ordained clergy and generally involves songs from the “Women with Wings” songbook (which, Wade pointed out, was dedicated to Gardner) and a bazaar where local artisans can sell their crafts.
Wade considered herself “borderline atheist” before joining the temple in 2012. “I really like this place,” she said. “It’s like a family.”
Since then, she has attended five Yule celebrations; she fondly remembers one Yule ceremony that was dedicated to the Reindeer Goddess, who, in Lithuanian and Latvian traditional stories, travels across the horizon on the winter solstice to retrieve the sun.
Winter solstice celebrations across Maine may vary in their practices and intentions, but they all share common threads: reflecting on the year that has passed, connecting to a higher natural or spiritual power and starting anew as the dark nights begin to brighten.