December 29, 2013

Winter Solstice welcomed across Maine

Communities give thanks for longer days

By Deirdre Fleming
Staff Writer

For thousands of years winter solstice ceremonies have been held across the world. For at least the last two decades, the celebration of longer days and more light has taken place across Maine.

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Celebrants gather around a fire to acknowledge the seasonal spirits during a Winter Solstice celebration led by Spirit Passages shamanic healers at Maine Audubon Gilsland Farm in Falmouth on Dec. 21

Photos by Tim Greenway/Staff Photographer

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Shamanic healer Allie Knowlton, who uses rattles to welcome the healing spirits from the four directions, lauds the solstice as an inclusive celebration.

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In a state where winter lasts a good six months, the winter solstice, which fell last Saturday, is a day of joy and thanksgiving. And to those who partake in celebrations and ceremonies, it’s so much more.

From Falmouth to Belfast, Holden and Orland, the winter solstice last weekend was celebrated with plays, poems, song, dance and fire ceremonies, just as the original solstice ceremonies were performed in ancient times.

“There are people who come every year who wouldn’t miss it,” said Allie Knowlton of Spirit Passages, who helps direct the solstice celebration at Maine Audubon in Falmouth.

“They feel this is more of what the Christmas holiday is all about. Rather than going to a party, this is the holiday for them because it’s cross-cultural. It is not religious, it is a celebration, and is inclusive of all people.”

In Belfast the Unitarian Universalist Church has held a winter solstice celebration for a dozen years, said Liz Fitzsimmons, who helped produce the church’s solstice show, which was just held in Northport.

The ceremony, which is a fund-raiser for different charities, takes the form of a performance with dancers, poets and singers. But the Belfast ceremony is very much grounded in the traditions of ancient tribes.

“There are components drawn from ancient traditions from Europe, and also from Africa and Asia,” Fitzsimmons said. “We organize it into four parts: light, twilight, darkness and the return to light.”

With youth choirs, jugglers, sword dances, fiddlers and costumes, the Belfast show draws more than 300 each year, Fitzsimmons said.

“A lot of solstice activities draw from pagan societies and early cultures, where the winter was a very difficult time,” Fitzsimmons said. “After the solstice, when the days started getting longer, they would practice rituals and dances and sing songs to celebrate the cycle of life, to express gratitude that the sun would come back.”

Elsewhere in Maine, the celebration of the solstice is a simple act: a poetry reading, a walk in nature or the burning of a bonfire, which again mimics the customs from ancient times.

“For more than 5,000 years, people have welcomed the winter solstice. It’s a new beginning,” said Holly Twining at the Audubon center in Holden, which has held a solstice celebration for five years.

There, families go out and put food on a tree for the birds and animals, to help the area wildlife through the winter.

“We talk about how the days will now start to get longer, there will be more light, and that’s better for the birds, who prefer it warmer. It makes it easier for them to survive,” Twining said.

And in Orland at Great Pond Mountain Wildlands the solstice is celebrated with a bonfire.

“People are encouraged to tell stories, to bring instruments, to make music. It’s pretty free-form. We just encourage people to hike up and sit around the fire,” said Wildlands Land Steward Brian Keegstra.

Meanwhile, at Maine Audubon in Falmouth, Evelyn Rysdyk and Knowlton have led a ceremony for almost 20 years.

The gratitude ceremony at Gilsland Farm is taken from the Incas in the Andes Mountains, Knowlton said. It involves a bundle stacked high with food and artifacts representing things in life we are grateful for, such as flowers to represent Earth; sugar to represent joy; animal crackers to represent wildlife; and alphabet noodles to represent communication.

“People come up and put bay leaves in the bundle saying prayers of what they’re grateful for. Some say it out loud. Some of the stories are beautiful,” said Knowlton, co-director of Spirit Passages, which leads shamanic workshops.

Knowlton said the bonfire at the culmination of the Maine Audubon ceremony mirrors the winter solstice celebrations across the ages and across the world.

“In cultures all over the world fire has been a part of the winter solstice. For some it is a welcoming of the sun, for some it’s an offering to honor the return of the sun, for others, it’s thanksgiving,” Knowlton said. “We use it to set intentions for the new year, because after people have the opportunity to show gratitude, we have them write down and put their prayers in the fire.

“It goes back to the hunter-gatherer times, to the very beginning. There is an energy around the solstice. It’s joyful.”

Staff Writer Deirdre Fleming can be reached at 791-6452 or at:

Twitter: FlemingPph

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Additional Photos

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After writing down their intentions for the upcoming year, winter solstice celebrants toss their papers into the fire so their prayers and resolutions can reach the spirit world. And if they’re praying for longer and warmer days, their prayers will indeed be answered.

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Sugar represents joy, so Bella Martin, 6, of Limerick uses it to sweeten despacho and prayer alike as cousins Brooke Rousey, 11, left, and Lainey Rousey, 8, watch.


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