The Return of the Light

The Return of the Light

Winter solstice (December 21st) is a big day for Alaskans. Although Solstice is technically the first day of winter, for many Alaskans it feels like the midpoint of the season. Once the days start getting longer, the end is in sight. Everyone celebrates Solstice in their own way, even if it's just a sigh of relief upon waking on Sunday morning. Many adults hold their own solstice parties, either formally or informally. Hardy souls hike Flattop to celebrate. Typically, a small handful of people will extend the festivities by camping there overnight. The solstice celebration may be one of the oldest holidays in the history of human civilization. Even the earliest cultures marked the return of daylight with relief: Neolithic Ireland Newgrange is a prehistoric earth work, which was built in Ireland at about the same time Stonehenge was built in England - between 3300 and 2900 BC. Newgrange is a long stone passage built below a huge earth mound, and used primarily for burial rites. It was built such that every year at dawn on the winter solstice, a narrow shaft of sunlight touches the floor of the burial chamber for 17 minutes. Ancient Egypt The green skinned Egyptian god Osiris not only passed judgment on the dead, but was the bringer of life, allowing plants to spring forth from the ground. Osiris was killed by his brother Set, but his wife Isis used magic to bring him back from death. His return was celebrated by the ancient Egyptians on December 21st. China The Chinese celebrate the winter solstice with the Dongzhi ("The Extreme of Winter") Festival. The traditional Dongzhi food is a dumpling or sticky rice ball. This tradition began in the Han Dynasty, when one of China's great medical practitioners, observing that the poor were suffering terribly from the cold, ordered his apprentice to make and distribute dumpling soup to the needy. Ancient Rome The ancient Romans celebrated Saturnalia over the winter solstice. Saturnalia was a period of widespread mischief and tomfoolery. Togas were left behind in favor of colorful casual clothes, slaves were freed for the week and ate at banquets served by their masters, and so forth. Saturnalia began as a one-day celebration but soon spread to encompass the entire week, much to the dismay of rulers at the time who were unable to keep the peace. Caligula, for one, tried to shorten the celebration to only five days, without success. (Hint: when Caligula thinks your party is getting too crazy, it's time to reassess.) Yupik Yupik families traditionally combined a celebration of the winter solstice with a celebration of the seal harvest, in The Bladder Festival. During the festival, people inflated seal bladders, took them inside and set them in an honored position, then returned them to the sea as a celebration of renewal and gratitude. This year Anchorage offers several family friendly events that you can attend: Saturday, December 20 When: 3PM to 7PM Where: Eagle River Nature Center, Eagle River, AK What: Celebrate the solstice with a lantern walk. Bring a half gallon milk or juice container to make your own lantern. Lantern making starts at 3PM. The lantern walk starts at 5PM. Hot dogs will be provided, but they ask that you bring finger food or dessert to share with the potluck. Sunday, December 21 When: Noon to 3PM Where: Imaginarium, Anchorage What: Make a sun dial, learn why the seasons change, and see hourly demonstrations on the life cycle of the sun and the solar wind.