In the Southern Hemisphere, as we observe the passing of the ‘Winter Solstice’, it is time to welcome the returning light. Time to tune in to the changing cycles and seasons of nature and embrace the ‘midwinter’! The southern Winter solstice, which falls on the 21st of June, is an astronomical phenomenon that marks the ‘shortest’ day and ‘longest’, darkest night of the year. The blanket of dusk falls early (around 5.15 pm in Melbourne), capping off the days that we experience the least amount of daylight … but also heralding the start of the slow march towards Spring.
Time to light up the night with a good old fashioned festive fire and shindig, with friends and family around the ‘village green’. Taking part in a local Winter solstice event can be a fun way to collectively mark the occasion, connect with community and warm up the Winter nights. A small but growing number of local community events are being hosted each year in mid to late June – like the much anticipated ‘Winter Solstice in Eltham’. This year it was held at the beautiful Edendale Farm, a jewel in the crown of this rather creative outer north-eastern suburb of Melbourne, situated near the gateway to the Yarra Valley. As usual, the beautiful sculptural bonfire, created by Festive Fires, was a highlight.
It was lovely to catch up with the eclectic band of musicians who go by the rather unusual name of Moosejaw Rifle Club. Two thirds of the group are teachers and maestros, from the progressive Preshil (an independent school in Kew), who moonlight in this quirky folk/country/bluegrass band, producing their own unique blend of dance-worthy rhythms and harmonies.
A fitting soundscape for a Winter solstice gathering – where it is easy to imagine people from times long past gathering around the village green or at a local farm to celebrate into the night – sharing a communal bonfire, toasting the feast and enjoying the sounds of the town’s music-makers.
Meanwhile, over in the Northern Hemisphere, folks are observing the ‘Summer Solstice’ or ‘midsummer’. Come December, when the Australian Summer rolls around, we will swap the celebrations on our different sides of the equator.
Historically, solstice events have been cause for celebration across many diverse cultures and countries. While the practice has never completely died out, it does seem to be experiencing somewhat of a revival in interest.
Marking solstice times as special in the annual calendar is believed to date back to neolithic and Bronze Age times. The enigmatic stone monuments built at Stonehenge in England and Newgrange in Ireland provide two good examples. Newgrange includes a carefully aligned sight-line that points to the winter solstice sunrise, while the axis of Stonehenge features an orientation aligned with the midwinter solstice sunset.
Archeological evidence suggests that the Winter solstice played an important part in monitoring the changing seasons. Lack of food and times of famine could occur over the long winter months. The midwinter festival was an important final feast and community event before deep winter really began. It would be followed by a time of bunkering down and awaiting the first signs of Spring. The solstice was often associated with the pending rebirth of the sun gods and a time of new beginnings. People looked forward to the reawakening of nature and sought blessings for their future crops.
During the early solstice festivals the sharing of food took on special meaning – symbolising a faith in the return of the sun and the harvest. In pagan days gone by the celebrations – known as the ‘yule’ feast – could last for days. The local community would gather together, celebrating with merriment and live music and enjoying the universal language of food, along with mulled wine or fermented beer.
Today’s Winter solstice events continue to bring people together to share food, wine and music during the darkest of nights, gathering around the warmth of a bonfire. In Melbourne, the inner city Collingwood Children’s Farm hosts a popular annual, family friendly event, as does the village-like CERES (the Centre for Education and Research in Environmental Strategies) in Brunswick. Some local schools have recently started holding their own events for their local communities, while schools like Preshil in Kew, have been continuing the tradition for many years, seeing solstice celebrations as an important part of the annual school calendar.
Over the past week, after popping in to the Preshil school community’s event and also heading over to Edendale Farm, in Eltham, I can see why a small but growing number of people believe that the Winter solstice is very much a tradition worth continuing. The nights may be cold outside at this time of year but there is something very warming and heartening in sharing the experience of a mesmerising bonfire or watching a lantern parade at dusk, and enjoying the company of friends, family and others within a local community setting. Not to mention listening to creative music-makers playing live, tasting roast chestnuts and delighting in nourishing Winter soups and the offerings of food stalls, chai tea and toasty hot chocolates with marshmallows. It is a nice ritual that makes for quite a festive and magical evening. I look forward to next year’s events!
In the meantime, as we snuggle down into our Winter coats and woolies, we can take heart that the days will now start to get longer and Spring is waiting around the corner. The cold, dark wintery days will subside and we will start to emerge from our collective Winter hibernation. The solstice reminds us of that. But it also invites us to go inwards – to spend more time in cosy indoor spaces, offering opportunities for a bit more contemplation and reflection, before the warmer weather once again draws us out and about.
* All photos and videos for this post were shot on an iPhone 7 Plus. I love the portability and versatility of this ‘camera in your pocket’! It certainly had its work cut out for it with the low light levels.