One morning, when the air is crisp, I want you to walk outside. Take a deep breath and feel the tingling of the snow, the bone-deep ache that comes if you stand out in it long enough. Close your eyes and immerse yourself in the reality of winter, bleak and bright, calm and cold. Stay out in it until the sun rises. Your eyes lift like a blossom to the light and your skin warms to feel its touch. The world echoes this relief, and though the ground may be sparse, it too recalls the life it holds. The barren winter is slow to yield, but spring will win out in the end.

Winter Solstice isn’t just another random solar festival. It marks the midway point of the winter season. The shortest day followed by the longest night and a blessed sunrise. It sounds so simple, but the fact is this day holds meaning to many of us. For many in the pagan community (pagan used here as an umbrella term), it’s a celebration in which one honors the natural cycle of the world and the immeasurable power of nature itself. It is difficult to understand that power. We live reasonably comfortable lives in the modern world. It can be so easy to forget the elements surrounding us and the experiences which much have existed for those who came before us.

I can be a determined person. Downright stubborn under the right circumstances. And this winter what I wanted more than anything else was to spend the night at Sun Henge on the grounds of the Ohio Renaissance Festival. I wanted to observe the solstice as we think many once did, by holding an all-night vigil, awaiting the return of the sun and a sure sign that no matter how dark the night the light always returns. In this case, I am not ashamed to say I may have overestimated my capabilities somewhat! But the night was made worth it in many ways. I believe very firmly that there are always lessons to be learned, even if we don’t always like the method through which they are taught.

Sun Henge, located on the grounds of the Ohio Renaissance Festival, is a real neolithic wooden sun henge. The sun will rise perfectly centered in the henge’s solar post twice a year. Once during the Winter Solstice and once during the Summer Solstice. The sun henge is free and open to the public anytime.

I don’t think one can properly appreciate the reality of the longest night unless they’ve sat there in 27 degree weather, crouched over a fire in the middle of a field and watched the stars pass overhead. The night is a beautiful thing, full of strange sounds and an eerie stillness. You breathe in, you breathe out, and a cloud of white vapor curls up through the air, joining the smoky scent of burning wood. You gaze up and realize how long it’s been since you’ve looked at the stars. You realize they really do twinkle, and if you look hard enough you can even see the pale colors on the odd occasion when a planet may be visible. You’re freezing your butt off and your face feels so dry that it burns. You have to get up and take a walk every now and again to keep yourself warm. But it doesn’t matter. It’s worth it.

Some event attendees choose to leave offerings at the Sun Henge site. Image Courtesy of Susan Morris

A friend of mine dropped by around 10 p.m., determined to give me some company for the night. I’ve told myself I owe her a few bottles of very good wine before the holidays are over ’cause frankly I’m not sure I could have held out all on my own! Good company brings its own kind of light to the evening. I took her up the hill to Sun Henge and showed her the wide, booming echo that eclipses the area. Don’t try to keep secrets in the middle of the henge! Even a whisper can be heard and frankly, I’m surprised my voice didn’t carry to the houses across the road.

Winter solstice this year coincided with the Ursid meteor shower. My friend and I couldn’t resist the opportunity for a once in a lifetime experience, so we sat back and watched the magnificent display of shooting stars leaving a blazing trail as they burned up in Earth’s atmosphere. I don’t care how old you are, nothing brings a sense of excitement like catching sight of a meteor. You can’t help but gasp like a child at a fireworks display. Suddenly the cold doesn’t exist. You’re gazing upward till your neck cracks, hoping to see another. 

The Vikings and other brave souls arrived in the cold December morning to greet the sun. Image courtesy of Elena Davidson

Right around 4 a.m. That cavalry arrived, bearing gifts of hot coffee and doughnuts in ample supply! Time passes slowly when you’re on your own, but it’s amazing how quickly it moves with good friends and good company. They brought more wood for the fire and pretty soon we had an odd but satisfying breakfast of chili and baked goods being passed around. Nothing tastes quite so good as one of those apple-filled powdered beasts from Buckeye Doughnuts after a long night. We had a slew of Vikings pay us a visit, starting a proper fire bowl up at the Sun Henge so we could all gather for the sun. 

Fog rose up from the ground and the skyline turned from stark grays to vibrant hues of orange and yellow. Francesca Pocaigue Craig took a bundle of sage to cleanse the area as everyone, bundled just as tightly in winter clothes, watched the sun slowly overtake the grounds. The day as clear and full of possibilities as the night that came before it, Roy Miller told stories of Yule and it’s significance to the makeup of the modern holidays many hold dear. There were smiles and conversation, and some of the guests left offerings at the center of the Henge. Lavender and sweetgrass, beeswax and sugar cookies laid out in respect and joy. Warmth offered for warmth received. th

The sun shines bright as it enters the center of the Henge’s solar posts during the 2019 winter solstice. Image courtesy of Francesca Pocaigue Craig

The winter solstice holds a lot of meaning for a lot of different people. For some, it’s the pure wonder of a naturally occurring event. For others, it has a more spiritual connotation. Many come for the sake of an event and seeing people they’ve missed from our community. But whatever the reason, Sun Henge was made for gatherings and events, a little of the sacred given a home here for others to freely experience. I sincerely enjoyed it, even if all I wanted after the fact was a hot shower and a long nap! But I plan to do this again next year, hopefully for a few more people willing to gut out the freezing December cold!

feature image courtesy of Elena Davidson

We Wish You a Very Happy Holiday!

In the next blog we will be talking with those in the ORF community about how they spent their holidays and their favorite traditions.

Join us Friday, December 27th to see how those in your community celebrate.