The Starkweather Solstice Bonfire is a titanic battle between fire and ice.
Depending on whether you're the type of northern-hemispherean who tends to view the hourglass as half-empty or half-full, the winter solstice marks either the shortest day of the year or the longest night. True, it's both. But some people tend to approach the official beginning of winter as an occasion to dread all that darkness and cold, while others view it as an opportunity to gather in celebration.
So it is this year with not one, not two but a handful of celebrations in Madison, as the winter solstice arrives at 6:04 a.m. on Sunday, December 21. Staggered across three days this weekend, these events add up to a veritable Solstice Fest that helps keep the planet from wobbling off its axis due to all the festivities in the opposite hemisphere, where the day is celebrated as the summer solstice -- the longest day and shortest night of the year south of the equator.
The most spectacular of Madison's winter solstice observances involve fire. The first of these is a Winter Solstice Celebration scheduled for 7-8:30 p.m. this Friday, December 19, at the and other neighborhood partisans gather for their annual Starkweather Solstice Bonfire near the bottom of the Olbrich sledding hill -- though not near enough to endanger sledding enthusiasts out to take advantage of the terrain.
And when they say bonfire, they mean quite an impressive conflagration indeed: They build a big bonfire every summer solstice as well as at the winter solstice, and organizers have become quite adept at putting on such displays. Lighting up at 4 p.m. Saturday, December 20, the towering inferno is expected to burn until sometime between 6 and 7 p.m. By then, it may well have cast off enough heat to leave quite a wide circle in the big hocking winter snowfall forecast between now and then. Those in attendance are also invited to enjoy hot chocolate and cider while they observe this titanic battle between fire and ice. The Starkweather Solstice Bonfire is free, but donations are welcome.
The flaming spectacles continue Sunday, December 21, when the Winter Solstice Bonfire are asked to bring a dish or beverage to pass, dress in warm layers, be prepared to tromp to the end of the Point through snow.
For those less inclined toward fiery displays, the presents music by Ruth Barrett, Michael Doran, Nancy Vedder-Shults and others, along with a solstice ritual, storytelling, costumes and a meditation for world peace. Scheduled for 7-9 p.m. on Friday, December 19 in the auditorium of the First Unitarian Meeting House, the pageant lists a suggested donation of $10 ($5 for kids) to benefit the Circle Sanctuary Nature Preserve and the First Unitarian Society.
The marks the occasion with a Solstice Walk scheduled for 4-5:30 p.m. on Sunday, December 21. Starting from the Arboretum Visitor Center, the walk is timed to encompass the sun setting on the shortest day of the year.
A walk of a different sort is scheduled later on Sunday from 6-8 p.m., as the hosts a Winter Solstice Labyrinth Walk at its sanctuary with live harp music. Organizers request a $5 donation, and walkers are invited to drop in at any time during the observance.
All of these solstice festivities herald a tipping point of sorts. After the Winter Solstice, the days start getting longer in the northern hemisphere. Whether you view the hourglass as half-full or half-empty, this is a reversal of fortune that merits celebrating.