The sun breaks through the clouds just as it is setting on Dec. 21, the shortest day of the year. From Olbrich Park on Madison’s east side, the sky above the isthmus glows orange and pink while the sun sinks below Lake Monona, and the crowd gathering to celebrate the winter solstice turns its attention to a pile of year-old Christmas trees about to be ignited.
Ted McManus, a long-time east-side resident, asks the crowd to repeat after him. “We have fallen into darkness,” says McManus. “We have fallen into darkness,” the crowd repeats. “For years it has been dark here,” McManus continues. “For years it has been dark here,” responds the crowd. “But now the dark has spread to swallow our whole land,” McManus says with the crowd echoing. “This is the longest, darkest night,” says McManus. “This night may last for years.”
McManus also offers some words of hope: “We each carry a small flame. Alone our flame can flicker out. Together, we can join our flames into a blazing torch. For years we have lit this solstice fire and the sun has returned. It will return again.... In dark days we need more light.”
“In dark days we need more light,” the crowd repeats.
And then the fire is lit, sending sparks into the darkening skies.
Throughout the ages, people have celebrated the solstice; in winter welcoming the return of the sun and in summer basking in the longest day. The biannual solstice celebration at Olbrich Park, presented by the Friends of Starkweather Creek, the Schenk-Atwood-Starkweather-Yahara Neighborhood Association and local businesses, began in the summer of 2002 as a way to honor the Starkweather Creek watershed, says Lou Host-Jablonski, one of the organizers. “Back in the day, the creek was a drainage ditch with shopping carts and tires floating in it,” says Host-Jablonski, who credits the Friends of Starkweather Creek with restoring the creek to a more natural state. Betty Chewning, one of the bonfire founders, says the idea for the celebration was to “draw attention to our place, but show that it’s part of a bigger picture.”
As the solstice event became more popular, Host-Jablonski says it became important for people to interact with the fire in a meaningful way. In the early days people would show up to the park with yard waste or grocery bags full of personal items like bank statements. “It’s common solstice practice to bring something to burn,” says John Steines, another organizer. “But we wanted to keep it all natural.” Chewning came up with the idea for “wish agents,” volunteers who hand out paper and pencils for people to write down wishes to throw into the fire. There are no rules about what to write down, but it’s popular to jot down three wishes — something to banish, something you are grateful for and something to hope for.
Standing close to the fire, Kevin Williams openly shares his hope for the future: “I wrote ‘Trump go away.’” The sentiment is common among this crowd.
Cindy McCallum says that she has been coming to the fire for nine years. As far as her feelings about 2017, she says there are a lot of unknowns but that it’s important to stay open and connected. “The more we are aware of our fear, the less we are ruled by it.”
Polly Sackett says that when she attended the fire five years ago, she had a feeling that she wanted to get rid of; after burning a phrase on a piece of paper in that fire, she felt some huge shifts in her life.
On this night she says she writes the same words again. Sackett unfolds her paper. It reads: “Keep going.”
Amount of daylight in Madison on Dec. 21: 8 hours, 59 minutes, 43 seconds
Difference in daylight on Dec. 21, compared to Dec. 20: one second shorter
Extra daylight on Dec. 22, compared to Dec. 21: three seconds
Daylight calculated for June 21, 2017: 15 hours, 22 minutes, 17 seconds
Size of pile of trees before ignited: 6 feet high by 8 feet wide