The solstice celebration at Walker Elementary marked the beginning of a string of solstice festivities around town, some emphasizing the scientific, others the spiritual and some simply the return of the sun.

The Walker Elementary gym transformed into a darkened retreat this morning, with rows of children walking silently through a spiral made of fir boughs, carrying candles they lit as they reached the center.

They carried their lights back out of the coil, representing the return of longer days after the solstice and sang "Here Comes the Sun" led by music teacher Louis Leger on the guitar.

"As we head closer to Dec. 21, the shortest day of the year, we know that every day forward will be a little longer," fifth-grade teacher Morgan Cottle recited. "We celebrate the fact that through the darkest of days, you know the sun will come back."

Then the doors to the gym opened suddenly, welcoming the sun back into the room.

The celebration marked the beginning of a string of solstice festivities around town, some emphasizing the scientific, others the spiritual and some simply the return of the sun.

"Being a public school, the religious part of the solstice is definitely not what we are celebrating," said Shannon Wolff, a first grade teacher who coordinated the event at Walker. "It is more the celebration of light."

Individual classes studied different aspects of the solstice, including the science of shorter days and how different cultures celebrated the solstice throughout history, she said.

All cultures

Nearly every culture has recognized the importance of the solstice, said astronomy enthusiast Richard Moeschl, who will give a presentation on the solstice tonight in a program put on by the North Mountain Park Nature Center.

"People of various different cultures have used that occasion to talk about the darkness inside yourself and how to deal with it," he said. "Here's the notion that I really love: It seems like everything is dead, we call it the dead of winter, but this is when buds start appearing on trees and animals start hibernating. In the midst of what appears to be dead, there's a lot of life going on."

The religious holidays that occur around the solstice are full of light symbols: menorahs for Hanukkah, the Christmas star and lights on the Christmas tree. Secular cultures are also full of traditions recognizing the light, and even ancient peoples like those that built Stonehenge recognized the importance of light and the stars, he said.

Moeschl will also speak at Trinity Episcopal Church on Sunday — the day of the actual solstice, which occurs at 4:04 a.m. — with an interfaith group speaking about the significance of the solstice within their own beliefs.

People of all faiths and no particular faith are looking for light in the darkness, said Anne Bartlett, rector of the church who organized the event.

It begins with an outdoor labyrinth walk surrounded by luminaries, with each participant carrying a lighted candle. Then speakers from the Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu and Christian faith will present their thoughts on light.

"Last year somebody told me that this evening has become for her and her family their spiritual celebration of the season," Bartlett said. "They don't belong to any particular organized religion, but the hope and the joy of seeing people of different religions celebrating something we all share, which is the darkest night of the year, is really meaningful."

Long traditions

Gatherings emphasizing specific traditions will also take place over the weekend, including a storytelling conference hosted by Red Earth Descendants. The practice is believed to be a sacred act in which Native Americans pass on wisdom through the generations and preserve their culture.

Rowan Tree Pagan Ministries will hold a Norse Viking-style Yule Celebration, a holiday that originated to celebrate the planetary shift of the solstice and that pagans believe lent several of its traditions to Christmas.

The Yule tree was originally decorated with candles and food as an offering to fairies and other underworld creatures, the Yule log was burned to provide warmth, and gifts of food and other essentials were exchanged to ensure survival of clan members, said William MacGregor, one of the ministry's two high priests.

Throughout the weekend, Dancing People Company will perform winter solstice dances, which end with an open invitation to the audience for all to join in on the dance floor. The dancing begins in the dark, progressively getting lighter and more energetic until the very last piece, full of sun and energy, said Peggy Paver, co-director of the company. They hold their community dance on the solstice to unite the local population.

"It's a new start for a lot of us, a new year, generating heat and community," she said. "For us living in a community that is so inundated with travelers most of the year, it's really a great time to tap into our own community. It's a way to pull our community together and connect as we head back into the spring and pull apart again."

Staff writer Julie French can be reached at 482-3456 ext. 227 or jfrench@dailytidings.com.