Festival of Lights: Epiphany

Spirit Weavers

Longsord Dancers

Paul Winter Consort

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.

Scary.

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

harrowing

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,

evergreens

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.

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Festival of Lights: Epiphany

Taking the risk of omission that comes with enumerating, the

observances

that are coming up, along with their celebrants, between now and

mid-January

include Chanukah, or the Festival of Lights (Jewish), this year

beginning

at sunset on December 13 and ending December 21; winter solstice

(anyone),

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

resolutions

— 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

solstice

celebration Sunday, December 20, at the Princeton

Unitarian-Universalist

Church. This is one of four occasions a year that the group produces

an event for the larger community, and its fifth annual winter

solstice

observance.

"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

promise-making.

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Spirit Weavers

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

patterns,

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

birth.

Although the Spirit Weavers initially met some five years ago at the

Unitarian Church, they quickly decided to come up with their own

"curriculum"

and rely on lay leadership. Members include business women, a writer,

a lawyer, a chemist.

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Longsord Dancers

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

"foreman,"

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.

Ideally,

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

members

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

dance,

will join Shandygaff Longsword in its solstice celebration, at least

for a cappella singing. Again, the level of activity is

weather-driven.

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

Day dances.)

The solstice season’s myriad holidays and observances encourage

diversity

— and the sharing of its richness — in diverse places. Earlier

this month, the Rider University community held a multicultural

observance

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

stories.

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.

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Paul Winter Consort

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,

Christmas

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

countries

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

lands,"

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

visual

accompaniments that can be purchased either to enrich or remember

the celebration, the Revels is a burgeoning business. And winter

solstice

observances steadily gain adherents — for the spectacle and the

spiritual, the fires and feasting, the warmth of togetherness. A

popular

Revels poems about the solstice describes the age-old constant:

"So

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

The Spirit Weavers, Unitarian Church of Princeton,

Cherry Hill Road and Route 206, 609-924-1604. Sunday, December

20, 5:30 p.m.

Shandygaff Dancers, Solstice Dances, Garden Theater

and Palmer Square. Winter solstice sword dance begins outside the

Garden, and dancers move to Palmer Square. Free. Monday, December

21, 7 p.m.


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