WINTER SOLSTICE 1990
In my tiny hometown of Point Reyes Station there stands a large building we call the Red Barn. When the trains ran through here a half a century ago, the locomotives rested and were repaired in this building. Now the old train barn functions as a Community Building, run by the local Lions Club.
There is a large open room, a room big enough for half a train. It is a perfect place for celebrations the Western Weekend and Livestock Show, the Hallowe’en Fair, numerous weddings, and even rock n’rock dances. The local Mexican American dairy workers use it to celebrate the Holy Feast of Guadalupe. It’s where folks gather and participate in communal activities. During the week it is my son’s day care center. And last year during the winter solstice our Red Barn temporarily became a shrine to the sun.
The winter has always been a tough time for humans. Food and light are at the minimum, darkness and cold at the maximum. Our ancestors found it absolutely essential to huddle together each winter and share what little they possessed in order just to survive. They recognized the necessity to be generous to one another in this season.
They knew that their lives and the lives of plants and animals were intimately tied to the energy from the sun. If the sun continued to travel in a lower and lower arc across the sky until it disappeared below the horizon, the earth would plunge into eternal darkness. The word solstice literally means “sun standing still.’ And to insure that the sun would stop its descent and the days would increase in length, our predecessors lit great fires. They were fires to placate the sun god. Though we now call these rites Chanukah and Christmas, both have their roots deep in ancient winter solstice sacraments.
The Red Barn was magically transformed on the Solstice and our pre schoolers welcomed winter with rituals as ancient as history. One dedicated parent and her helpers made a giant spiral on the floor with pine boughs, fir branches, holly twigs and Pyracantha. Interspersed in the greenery were ornaments, seashells, crystals, bones and other beautiful artifacts of nature.
We began at sunset. In the darkness and cold of the large empty room all the parents gathered and chanted a simple song. Each child walked alone holding an unlit candle that was safely impaled in an apple. They slowly spiraled to the center where a single flame burned. And every one lit their own candle and placed it amid the greenery and slowly walked back out, the parents still singing. At the end of the ceremony the Red Barn was full of light, warmth and love. It was a vibrant celebration of the power of the sun and an affirmation of life.
During this season we celebrate miracles. The Hebrews rejoice in the oil that lasted for eight days when it was supposed to last but one. The Christians celebrate the miracle of a baby, of new life. We combined the two; we witnessed the energy of the sun flickering on the face of a three year old. Truly a miracle.
In our fragmented world full of instant subdivisions, constant migrations and mobile communities, real neighborhoods seem like an anachronism. But on this solstice through the connecting thread of children several families came together and for a moment had a center, a focus, a hearth. Our children lit their personal candle from the communal fire, acknowledging the relationship that we all have with our fellow humans. We need one another. No man and no family is an island.
I wish you and your family a joyous holiday season. Please join me in praying for peace in the Middle East.