On the one hand, it's the shortest day of the year in the northern hemisphere. On Monday, Dec. 21, the sun is scheduled to rise in Madison at 7:26 a.m. and set at 4:26 p.m. That's nine hours of daytime (though the actual count is 23 seconds shy of nine hours two seconds less than the day before and the day after).
On the other hand, the shortest day of the year in the northern hemisphere is paired with the longest night of the year. And the Winter Solstice marks a tipping point: The days stop getting shorter and start getting longer again, bringing a gradual increase in daylight for winter activities like skiing, skating, sledding, shoveling and skidding. What's not to celebrate? Unless you're a night owl or a vampire, this is an occasion that calls for building big bonfires, singing, dancing, storytelling and pacing in a labyrinth.
The proliferation of Winter Solstice celebrations in and near Madison now spans cultural and spiritual traditions, accommodating the general public as well as those who draw on its ancient and hallowed origins.
Among the choices this year, in chronological order:
Monona's Aldo Leopold Nature Center gets a jump on everyone this year with its annual Winter Solstice Celebration, starting at 6:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 18. In an event that explores Solstice traditions spanning cultures and centuries, this celebration includes a winter hike on the center's property, an opportunity to help feed the birds that winter over at the center, a campfire, the burning of a Yule log, snacks and hot cocoa. The cost is $7 per person or $25 per family. Reservations are requested at 221-4038.
Rooted deep in seasonal traditions, Circle Sanctuary's Winter Solstice Pageant is one of the most venerable Winter Solstice observances in the area. On tap for 7 p.m. Friday, Dec. 18, at First Unitarian Meeting House, this year's festivities include music and storytelling, costumed characters and meditation. The suggested donation is $10 ($5 for youths, free for kids under 5), with proceeds benefiting Circle's nature preserve and the First Unitarian Society. Details at 924-2216 and www.circlesanctuary.org/wintersolstice.
James Reeb Unitarian Universalist Church (242-8887) hosts its annual celebration with a reverent oratorio performed by the church's choir at 5 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 19.
Nothing beats an impressive bonfire for warming up a Winter Solstice observance, and there are few more impressive locations to mount a bonfire than the tip of Picnic Point. Four Lakes Sierra Club hosts its annual Winter Solstice Bonfire on Solstice Eve, Sunday, Dec. 20, at 6:30 p.m. The group requests RSVPs from anyone intending to attend: Contact Lucinda Athen at 274-7870 or email@example.com. Participants are urged to bring a snack to pass, stories and songs to share and hot beverages for themselves and to dress in warm layers to fend off the winter chill. Bring a spare layer or two: Picnic Point is, after all, exposed to the elements.
When it comes to bonfires, the Friends of Starkweather Creek (www.starkweatherfriends.org) have been building and lighting what might best be described as towering infernos to center their summer and winter solstice celebrations in recent years. Theirs are the sort of bonfires that send great masses of flame skyward, and broadcast sufficient heat to prevent onlookers from getting too close without risking a good singe. Scheduled for 4 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 20, below Olbrich Park's sledding hill, this year's Starkweather Solstice Bonfire also features luminaries, hot cider and cocoa. More info: 251-1893.
The Winter Solstice proper Monday, Dec. 21 brings a choice of two walks commemorating the Winter Solstice. First, the UW Arboretum (263-7888) hosts a Solstice Night Walk starting at 4 p.m. from the Arboretum Visitor Center. Then, from 6-8 p.m., the Madison Christian Community (www.madisonchristiancommunity.org) hosts a Winter Solstice Labyrinth Walk with music by harpist Alice Kissling at its location on Old Sauk Road. A $5 donation is requested. More information: 238-2503.
From here, it's on to longer and longer days until the Summer Solstice tips us back toward shorter and shorter days. The longest day of the summer is all well and good, but there's something about standing on the verge of shortening days that renders it bittersweet. At least the Winter Solstice holds the promise of more and more daylight. In a winter wonderland, such a promise is not the least bitter, and all sweet.