Darkest day brings winter celebration

On Dec. 22, the sun will reach its southernmost point and everyone in the northern hemisphere will have to turn on the porch lights a bit earlier than any other day of the year.

That day marks the winter solstice, and for many Ashlanders, the meaning extends far beyond scientific measurements.

"It's about our relationship with the earth and nature and light and the seasons," said Martha Cotton. "It's not about one day. It's about the entire season and transitions."

Cotton will mark the transition with a giant bonfire at EarthTeach Forest Park, where she works as park coordinator.

For her, the day is as much about remembering the ancient traditions of her ancestors as it is about reflecting on the past year and honoring the earth.

"Wintertime was really frightening for them," she said. "They didn't know if they would live through the winter."

Sitting up with a fire all night until the sun returns is symbolic of the long wait for spring and survival that ancient peoples endured.

Some of those ancient rituals and beliefs are still practiced in modern-day Ashland in the Rowen Tree Coven and other pagan circles.

"We see the earth as a goddess," said Aylah Hallel, who leads the Rowen Tree group as acting high priestess. "Any kind of shift with the earth is important."

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Rafael, left and Teresa Johnson look over a wide variety of natural stonework at the the First Winter Soltice Faire and Extravaganza at the Stone Soup Family Daycare .

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Hallel and other coven members will pass the solstice, or "Yule," as they call it, with toasting to the gods and goddesses, feasting and spending time with one another. They celebrate the day of darkness as it leads them back to light, but Hallel said she is glad when people mark the solstice in any way they can.

"Ashland seems to be a very earth-conscious location," she said. "Anybody who cares about the earth is at least going to be aware of the solstice."

For many other people, the solstice is not so much a time of celebration as a time to spend alone, quietly reflecting on the year.

"The actual solstice itself is kind of a private quiet thing that I do," said Levitea Castle, who organized a solstice fair this past weekend. "I really like the hunkering down in the winter darkness, knowing that the spring will come. The solar gods will come again and the sun will come back again."

Caryn Gehlmann usually prefers to honor the solstice alone, and reserves Christmas as the more celebratory holiday.

"Christmas is more about family, and solstice is a bit more personal," she said.

Although some observe the solstice as their sole winter holiday, for many others like Gehlmann, it is just one more reason to celebrate.

Krista Johnson, who began celebrating the solstice about 10 years ago, has slowly given up her Christmas observation in favor of the solstice, but still sees a connection between the two.

"All the Christian holidays I grew up with are associated with the seasonal holidays," she said. "I just feel like Christmas has tuned into such a commercial enterprise, and I'm not really into that anymore"

Scott Blair celebrates the solstice, Christmas, Hanukkah and any other tradition that will have him.

"We should take every opportunity to celebrate because life is short, and light is short," he said.

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