In the Garden:
New England
December, 2005
Regional Report

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The days are now getting longer, but there's still plenty of winter left and the birds still need your gifts of food.

Here Comes the Sun

December 21 was the winter solstice -- the shortest day (and longest night) of the year. The sun was at its lowest point in the sky at precisely 1:35 p.m. EST. So even though winter officially began on the same day, the days are now getting longer. Why, we're almost slip-sliding into spring!

The solstice can get forgotten amidst the busyness of this month, but it's worth pausing to acknowledge it in some way, if only to give you an excuse to contemplate something other than spending money. A friend of mine used to have annual solstice bonfires where everyone brought something to contribute to the pyre -- a symbol of something they wanted to shed from their lives in order to make a new beginning. Someone would invariably bring a reminder of a faded love affair, or an old piece of clothing that used to fit the now-more-svelt figure.

These solstice bonfires have their roots in the Yuletide fires that were a tradition of the Germans, Celts, and Romans in ancient times. "Yule" -- from the Germanic "Yula" meaning wheel of the year or of the sun -- was a celebration of the rebirth of the sun, which lasted about 12 days, beginning with the actual solstice. The Yule log itself was a log of ash or oak that was brought indoors as a symbol of protection and luck to the house, and family members would make wishes on it. The log was then placed on the fire and allowed to burn for at least 12 hours, preferably until dawn. The leftover ashes and pieces of wood were saved as good luck.

The Germans believed Yuletide was a time when spirits of the dead returned to visit and when elves and trolls ran free. The Romans called their celebration "Saturnalia" -- a dedication to the god Saturn, and they decorated their homes with greenery and lights, feasted, and exchanged small gifts. To the Celts, the solstice represented the defeat of the Holly King (death and darkness) by the Oak King (rebirth and life). It was a time of hope, of uplifting the spirits of those tired of darkness and yearning for light.

So, for those of us tired of darkness and yearning for light, creating some ritual to mark the winter solstice might lift the spirits. Even if a bonfire is out of the question, we can light candles to commemorate the Yuletide and the lengthening days to come. Then, full of hope, we can pick up a seed catalog and sit with a cup of tea and ponder next year's list of must-haves. Personally, I think I'll don a headlamp, strap on my snowshoes, and go out and greet the elves.


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