Lighting up the Longest Night
By Jim Dodson
Every family has its holiday traditions, moments that make the meaning of the season come alive.
For our far-flung clan, that event is a winter-solstice gathering that lands on the doorstep on or about December 21st, bringing our four grown children and their significant others home from several different compass points.
The winter solstice is the shortest day and longest night of the year, a moment when the Northern Hemisphere tilts far away from the sun. Since the Bronze Age, human beings have observed the annual astronomical event with rituals and celebrations that mark the symbolic “death” and “rebirth” of the sun and the beginning of a new growing cycle of the Earth.
In ancient times and across numerous world cultures, the hibernal solstice was observed and celebrated by midwinter bonfires, feasting, storytelling and revelry aimed at illuminating the longest night of the year. For people whose fate and livelihood relied entirely on the Earth’s bounty, the period from January to April was regarded as the beginning of “famine time” — marking the midwinter solstice as a final chance to share food and fellowship. Cultural historians, in fact, note that the idea of decorating homes with evergreen boughs — wreaths, garlands, even the first Christmas trees — evolved directly from pre-Christian winter solstice rituals among Northern European people.
Our little midwinter fête evolved quietly among a modest gathering of friends and fellow parishioners from our Episcopal church on the coast of Maine.
My clever friend Edie Hazard sent out an invitation to a handful of like-minded souls inviting us to drop by her historic colonial home in the village to “Sing for our supper” by reading a poem, singing a song, doing a dance or simply sharing a good tale for a winter’s night.
The food was sensational, the fellowship even more so. The highlight came when Edie’s young blond daughter, Caroline, dressed in a white robe and red sash, entered the darkened “hall” room with a wreath of lighted candles balanced on her head, observing the Swedish tradition of honoring the feast of Saint Lucia. Guitars were played, a few bawdy tales told and Christmas carols sung.
Two years on, as word of the party spread through town, the gathering grew and we moved the evening to our roomier post-and-beam house on a forested hilltop west of town.
Winter in Maine is serious business. Most years (back then, anyway) the chance of snow being deep on the ground by solstice was high, yet frigid temperatures and blowing snow were never an impediment to our hearty Maine friends and solstice revelers — some of whom we only saw once or twice a year but always at the winter solstice. On at least two occasions, folks turned out during a blizzard and trudged up our long driveway into the forest on snow shoes and relied on their four-wheel vehicles to get them where they needed to go.
Hard weather makes good timber, as they say up in Maine. No silly snowstorm ever halted the winter solstice celebration.
Edie’s original rules applied, borrowed from an ancient pagan tradition of lighting up the darkest night. Participants were invited to perform for a supper that included my Brunswick stew made from a top-secret recipe and a variety of delicious cakes, pies and other delicacies my bride, Wendy — a world class baker — spent days preparing.
Over the next two decades, the wit and creativity of our solstice friends never failed to surprise and inspire. There was always lots of music, ancient airs and dances, beloved church hymns balanced by Irish drinking songs.
But we also had medieval jugglers and costumed scenes from Shakespeare. One year, a friend brought her old college roomie who happened to be a lead mezzo-soprano from a famous touring opera company. We had teenage cello players, elderly banjo pickers, moving storytellers, sober memoir readers, goofy comedy skits, pantomimes and shadow puppetry.
One of my favorites was the sweet elderly couple who spent weeks working up an elaborate magic act that went so horribly off the rails, the crowd mistakenly thought it was the funniest comedy act they’d ever seen.
Another of my annual favorites was old Colonel Bob Day, the retired admissions director from West Point Military Academy (and my weekly lunch chum) who showed up every year in his blazingly bright green corduroy pants and fire engine–red sweater to read the hilarious “blue” limericks he spent the year writing. None of which I can repeat here.
When we moved home to North Carolina, the party came with us.
In Southern Pines, where we lived for almost a decade before moving home to the Triad, the spirit of the party was a bit slow to catch on with friends, some of whom thought it was more of a holiday cocktail party than an ancient pagan observance meant to lighten up the night.
It wasn’t until my talented colleague Andie Rose — the co-creator and art director of this magazine — and her visiting sister, Stacy, dressed up like Christmas elves, and performed a charming act that involved making holiday cocktails and singing a silly song, that the floodgates of creativity sprung open. Soon we got everything from Russian folk songs to rodeo roping tricks.
For our now-grown four children, who have been steeped in this lovely tradition of performance and fellowship since childhood, the winter solstice has grown to be something special, a tie that binds, a coveted family ritual, something they all strive to get home to every year. In the past, since every member in clan Dodson is musical, we’ve performed everything from Scottish folk songs to Southern spirituals.
Here in the Triad — where the 25th edition of the event is already well into the planning stages (baking soon to commence) — friends have quickly embraced our brand of solstice revelry with gusto. A magical moment came the first year when the senior editor of this magazine forgot the third verse of the ancient French drinking song her mother taught her and was bailed out by a member of the audience – an elderly professor of European history – who knew every blessed verse and joined her for a lusty duet all the way to a standing ovation.
Last year, accompanied by her husband on guitar, a dear friend we’ve known for years got to her feet and belted out a jaw-dropping version of a cowboy song — complete with yodeling — worthy of Patsy Montana herself, bringing down the house. Who knew Liz could sing like that! The great hope is that our new Queen of the Rodeo will return to reprise her rowdy cowgirl performance this year.
Every solstice, though, brings another year of change and surprise.
Last year my wife’s two strapping single lads, a pair of newlyweds and a couple about to get engaged were in residence for the days between Solstice and Christmas. They seemed to have one fine time burning every fireplace in the house for days while drinking every adult beverage, including the 70-year-old bottle of rare Portuguese sherry I thought I’d securely squirreled out of sight, before we kissed them goodbye and sent them off for the New Year.
This year, for the first time ever, the jury is out as to whether any of the tribe will make it home. The newlyweds are living in Israel and the newly engaged just took new jobs in Manhattan, moving household and dogs from Chicago to an apartment in Queens. One strapping lad is going off to Japan, meanwhile, a trip he’d dreamed of taking forever, and the other has a new love interest.
Someday, perhaps we’ll get the family band back together again.
In the meantime, sentimental lug that I am, with perhaps the biggest crowd yet expected to show up on our doorstep on that long dark cold Saturday night at month’s end, I’m seriously considering a move in memory of the late great Colonel Bob, who left me a folder of his original blue limericks.
Now all I need is to find a pair of outrageously green corduroy pants, a nuclear-red sweater and the liquid courage to actually read them and I should be good to go.
On the other hand, maybe I’ll just have a second slice of my wife’s famous Southern caramel cake, count my blessings with a wee nip of rare (and better hidden) Portuguese sherry, and simply savor friends and neighbors kind enough to bring light and laughter — and probably a few tears — to the longest night of the year. h