Corrections or additions?
This story by Pat Summers was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on
December 16, 1998. All rights reserved.
In the Face of Darkness, Flickers of Light
Go back to those thrilling days of way yesteryear,
centuries and eons ago, when really early man and woman had
much more to worry about than holiday gifts to buy or get, and whether
to bask on Aruba or Anguilla after New Year’s. "Olden days"
doesn’t do it — we’re talking cave man days, for all practical
purposes: the "bad old days" of missed meals, saber-tooth
tigers, and very unfriendly neighbors.
At nighttime, it was dark. Until fire was discovered, it was dark.
And in winter, it was darker for longer and longer. It was inarguably,
unremittingly, and unexplainably dark. It seemed as if the sun was
fading fast, might stop shining altogether, and might never reappear.
As what we now call mid-December came closer, the days got shorter
still. Then came December 21, what we call the winter solstice, the
longest night of the year — which also meant the shortest day
of the year, with sunlight practically imperceptibly after that
dark night. What we now call "seasonal affective disorder"
(SAD) doesn’t begin to describe it.
Fast forward: Mumbling and grumbling about darkness descending well
before 5 p.m. these days, we try to cope by re-setting timers so porch
lights go on earlier, we do errands during the day time, and after
that choose well-lit routes to evening events, and we leave lights
on at home. For comforting warmth and light, we huddle around our
fireplaces and invite our friends to visit our house-caves.
In this latter, atavistic manner we still resemble our prehistoric
ancestors, who wondered how vegetation and animals would survive,
how they would they survive . . . without the sun. Little wonder that
traditions and ceremonies and customs evolved, some of them not so
nice, to propitiate the dark and entice the sun to come back strong.
One element of this frenzy for light, once it was feasible: bonfires.
They kept the dark at bay and illuminated festivities aimed at winning
back the sun.
Now those earlier rituals have been softened, domesticated, turned
into comparatively benign winter holidays — myriad events and
celebrations for people of all persuasions, with commonalities that
include once-pagan solstice symbols like holly and mistletoe,
and wreaths, and symbolic suns (candles, lights, and fires), prompted
by an ancient fear of the dark and a hope for the sun — or the
son — to be born.
Now we know the glass of longest night and shortest day is half full,
not half empty. We know to celebrate the winter solstice — not
as the end of light, but its beginning. Celebration and starting anew
mark the holidays that cause our frenetic pace from December into
January and the New Year.
Taking the risk of omission that comes with enumerating, the
that are coming up, along with their celebrants, between now and
include Chanukah, or the Festival of Lights (Jewish), this year
at sunset on December 13 and ending December 21; winter solstice
December 21, the shortest day and the first day of winter; Christmas
(Christians and countless involuntary others), December 25; Kwanzaa,
or "first fruits of the harvest" (African-Americans), December
26 through New Year’s Day; Three Kings Day, or Epiphany (Christians),
January 6. Although New Year’s Day traditionally means a time for
"out with the old, in with the new" and for making brave
— at least some solstice observers use that occasion to clean
their spiritual houses and start anew.
The "Spirit Weavers," a group of eight area women who meet
bi-weekly all year for their own spiritual growth, will stage a
celebration Sunday, December 20, at the Princeton
Church. This is one of four occasions a year that the group produces
an event for the larger community, and its fifth annual winter
"We’ll probably drum," says Penny Silletti, one member of
the Spirit Weavers, describing what’s likely to happen. The group
borrows from Celtic, Wiccan, and Native American practices, drawing
also from new-age spiritualism. "We’re comfortable with the word
`pagan,’" Silletti says, noting that today’s stories, myths, and
symbols derive from pagan solstice rituals, and the Roman festival
of Saturnalia, which predated new religions by thousands of years.
Eclectic as the productions are, all are "very positive,"
sharing a respect for nature, for the earth. Besides drumming, the
celebration will include discussion of the darkness and the myths
and symbols of the season, and ritual candle-lighting to accompany
Just as today’s holiday customs are often thought to have roots in
agricultural events and cosmic occurrences (think of Easter and the
re-birth that occurs each year in spring), the Spirit Weavers will
ceremonially imitate trees that drop leaves in the fall, shedding
what they want to rid themselves of. For instance, to symbolize a
personal casting off, they may make a list of harmful beliefs or
then burn it. The winter solstice equates with darkness, Silletti
notes, but also with new beginnings. Although the longest night of
the year, it’s also when the light starts increasing — a new
Although the Spirit Weavers initially met some five years ago at the
Unitarian Church, they quickly decided to come up with their own
and rely on lay leadership. Members include business women, a writer,
a lawyer, a chemist.
With a name like "Shandygaff Longsword," it’s
got to be good. Originally an English pub drink made of ginger beer
and beer, "Shandygaff" now identifies ritual dancers who will
perform on winter solstice night, Monday, December 21, first in front
of the Garden Theater on Nassau Street and then at Palmer Square.
According to Sue Dupre, the group’s artistic director, or
Shandygaff Longsword will move — swiftly or less so, depending
on the weather — between the two sites. As usual, they will dress
in "kit," or costume: black pants, turquoise vest, white shirt
with ribbons on the sleeves (and who knows what kind of comforting
long johns). Musicians accompanying the dancing will either fiddle
(if it’s not too cold for nimble fingers) or play the recorder.
they’ll be able to do both.
English in origin, sword dances tell a story. One example, which Dupre
says was a common element of mummers plays, is the one about the fool
who is killed and somehow brought back to life. The 10-member group,
dancing since 1985, will perform a version adapted from the Yorkshire
village of Ampleforth, a place many of the Shandygaff Longsword
have visited. The metal swords used allow the dancers to connect with
one another, often ending in a star shape, called a "lock."
A second ritual dance group, "Griggstown Lock," named both
for the canal feature nearby and the star formed at the end of a
will join Shandygaff Longsword in its solstice celebration, at least
for a cappella singing. Again, the level of activity is
This group of 11, formed about 10 years ago for the wedding of two
members (one, Jane McCarty, now its foreman), performs "rapper
sword dancing" from Northumbria, in northeastern England. Their
metal swords are nearly 30 inches long, with a handle at each end,
and their "kit" differs from Shandygaff.
Dupre, an assistant radiation safety officer in Princeton University’s
environmental health and safety office, is also a dance caller, in
demand around the country, and foreman of "Handsome Molly,"
the third of the area’s four ritual dance groups. (The fourth group
of dancers, Millstone River Morris, is most visible for its dawn May
The solstice season’s myriad holidays and observances encourage
— and the sharing of its richness — in diverse places. Earlier
this month, the Rider University community held a multicultural
of the holiday season, highlighting five "holiday stations":
Chanukah, Christmas, Diwali (Indian), Kwanzaa, and Three Kings Day,
and featuring the sharing of traditions, food, music, prayers, and
This week marks Summit Bank’s second annual celebration of "A
Season for All," when the cultural and religious holidays of its
employees and customers can be shared and savored. The observance
"encourages Summit people in branch offices to reflect on their
own heritage and share it with customers," says Virginia Ibarra,
executive vice president and diversity officer. Posters and brochures
will convey information about Chanukah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, Ramadan
(Islamic), Three Kings Day (Hispanic), and the Chinese lunar New Year.
Employees at the Carnegie Center headquarters and other sites with
company cafeterias will enjoy a different ethnic menu each week day.
Music stores feature Paul Winter’s winter solstice CDs
side-by-side with carols and Messiah recordings, so influential has
the clarinetist been in the solstice observance. For years, Winter
has produced his annual solstice spectacle at New York’s Cathedral
of St. John the Divine, as well as taking the popular show on tour
to locales that have included Trenton’s War Memorial and the State
Theater. Although the festival of lights will be past, the Paul Winter
Consort will perform at the Princeton University Chapel on Saturday,
January 16, as featured artists at the Coalition for Peace Action’s
annual Peace on Earth benefit (609-924-5022).
In Philadelphia, New York, and other cities around the country,
Revels celebrations are underway. Offshoots of the original Revels,
which began almost 30 years ago in Cambridge, Massachusetts, these
participatory events include singing, dancing, story-telling, drama,
and ritual — and feature holiday customs and practices from
around the world. This year’s Philadelphia Revels celebrate through
American folk traditions, while the New York Revels feature music,
dance, and drama from "icy Scandinavia and the northern
and the Washington, D.C., Revels emphasize African-American song,
dance, and story.
Now grown to include a newsletter with pages of print, audio and
accompaniments that can be purchased either to enrich or remember
the celebration, the Revels is a burgeoning business. And winter
observances steadily gain adherents — for the spectacle and the
spiritual, the fires and feasting, the warmth of togetherness. A
Revels poems about the solstice describes the age-old constant:
the shortest day came, and the year died, and everywhere down the
centuries of the snow-white world came people singing, dancing, to
drive the dark away."
— Pat Summers
Cherry Hill Road and Route 206, 609-924-1604. Sunday, December
20, 5:30 p.m.
and Palmer Square. Winter solstice sword dance begins outside the
Garden, and dancers move to Palmer Square. Free. Monday, December
21, 7 p.m.
Corrections or additions?
This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com
— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.