Capital Region

Solstice celebrations in Capital Region honor brighter times ahead

Kent Busman stands between two Mayan statues on his front porch.
Kent Busman stands between two Mayan statues on his front porch.

On the darkest day of 2020, there will be singing, bonfires, luminaries and laughter.

Astronomically speaking, that day will be Monday, Dec. 21 — the winter solstice — the shortest day and longest night of the year. On that date, many cultures will celebrate the return of the sun, as the hours of daylight once again begin to extend.

Capital Region celebrants say events to honor the winter solstice are much needed during this year darkened by the pandemic and political unrest.

Solstice Ball, Socializing and Stelae

Kent Busman of Scotia, a minister ordained in The Reformed Church in America, has celebrated the winter solstice with his wife, Jill, and their three children for about 25 years.

“We wanted our kids to be part of that because it’s an inherent part of that whole [holiday] season. Why Christians celebrate Christmas is because of light coming into the darkness. The darkness doesn’t overcome it. But that message gets so cluttered, and to have that time without presents, without Christmas music, to play and to celebrate still being alive, even when the world is really dark, that’s a great thing for us,” Busman said.

The family’s celebration started small, with just the five of them playing together outdoors. One of their favorite solstice-themed games is Raven and Sun Tag, which loosely reenacts a Native American story about a raven who steals the sun in order to light the universe. Solstice Ball, a soccer-football hybrid, is another one of their solstice party staples. The adults are always the dark team and the children the light team. The winning team determines the world’s fate for the following six months: increasing light or increasing darkness.

“Thankfully, every year, light won, and lo and behold it got lighter the next season,” Busman said, recalling games from past celebrations.

As years passed, the Busmans’ winter solstice celebration evolved to include friends and colleagues.

“It became this sort of excuse to gather together to remind ourselves that life has been really good to us,” Busman said.

Guests come bearing homemade food and drinks. They’re greeted by a trail of luminarias lining the driveway and by two 6-foot-tall Mayan monuments — known as stelae — that Busman carved out of foam.

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“When it gets dark enough, they really look like rock!” he insisted.

The family has a lighthearted party tradition of “sending out the solstice gods,” using knickknacks found around the house.

“My favorite god is the soccer trophy. It’s like the god of suburbia,” Busman joked.

The only hard and fast party rules: no gifts, no commercialism and no Christmas music.

Now that the Busmans’ children are in their 30s, the “kids” are in charge of the celebration.

“It’s still more important for them to gather on the solstice than on the actual Christmas day,” Busman noted.

The Busmans have never let troubled times stop them from celebrating. Five or six years ago, they hosted the party on their home’s foundation as they rebuilt after a house fire. This year, COVID-19 will put its mark on their festivities. No friends will attend, but the family will still honor the tradition. It’s especially important this year, Busman said.

“The world is really freakin’ dark. We haven’t had much chance for laughter. But it’s a reminder that we’ve seen darkness before,” he explained. “And for me, as a minister, that’s at the core of the Christian story. That’s placed near the solstice for a reason, because we see darkness and the light will overcome it, even when we don’t know how.”

Celebrating Celtic Roots

Celebrating the winter solstice brings Lin Murphy of Saratoga Springs back to her Celtic roots.

“The Celtic peoples celebrated all of the seasonal rituals. Winter solstice is really only one of eight,” she explained, noting it’s her favorite.

In the past, Murphy has held winter solstice parties with friends and family around a roaring bonfire at Still Point Interfaith Retreat Center in Mechanicville. The promise of light-filled days to come was celebrated with drumming, dancing, chanting and song.

“Return, return, return the light; return the light,” she sang, recalling past celebrations.

By the light of the fire, celebrants offered up prayers for winter, personal prayers and prayers for the world.

“We would welcome the Four Directions, invite the energies and the winds and the spirits, and then enjoy some food together,” she said, explaining that welcoming the directions is a global, indigenous form of opening the ceremony.

Murphy said there’s an art to her solstice ceremonies: Participants gather, welcome in the spirits and energies, then journey through a “gateway,” where things are let go.

“For example, I want to release my fears, my worries about COVID and let some of that go. I want to release my bad feelings,” she explained.

Participants take that mental baggage and imagine throwing it into the fire.

“Then you open it up to what you want to bring in — kind of a vision for the new year. And then close it up — release the directions and then have a feast,” Murphy said.

Each celebration is different, she noted, recalling a year when she put candles all around Still Point’s labyrinth.

“We walked the labyrinth together in the candlelight because it’s about the light. It’s the darkest night of the year, but it’s also the light turning, so it’s a really special moment,” she said.

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Sometimes, she and her family hold a simple celebration at home, which involves lighting candles, decorating with greenery and making wishes for the new year.

“I usually build an altar on my back porch, with candles and greens, and any little stones or crystals or pictures of divine beings,” she said. “I bring in Mary Magdalene, I bring in Jesus, I bring in the divine presence of the goddess.”

Murphy said she will celebrate the 2020 winter solstice at home due to the pandemic. She’ll also celebrate virtually with the 13 Moon Mystery School community, based in California.

She said the upcoming celebration is much needed.

“Solstice means ‘sun standing still.’ So, it’s a time of stillness and quiet, and honoring that hibernating, which is perfect for this winter because we are going to have to hibernate more than usual. So to have a ritual of ceremonies to actually say, ‘Yeah, it’s OK to get quiet and go inside and be still,’ maybe we can learn to do more of that. Our American culture is so speedy and fast, and we have to be busy all the time, so to honor that place of stillness is a good thing to do.”

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