Kat & I read about an annual winter solstice celebration at the local church “St.Aiden-on-the-hill” and decided to go. We still don’t know very many people in the community, and St. Aiden’s seems like a friendly and welcoming place, not to mention their weekly rummage sale has been the source of some pretty good finds.
I realized that it’s been more than 15 years since I’ve been in a church. When I was a child, my mother used to take me with her to the United Church in North Bay and as I grew older I just lost interest in going. Unitarians are pretty easy-going folks, they’re all about community and just getting people together with a positive focus.
While St. Aiden’s does not declare itself to be any particular denomination, it does have a very Unitarian vibe, and we just couldn’t resist joining the community for a Pagan celebration within the walls of a Christian institution.
The invitation, advertised in the local paper, said:
“Candle lighting ceremony to celebrate the return of the light, followed by hot drinks and snacks – please bring a mug.”
The Girls with the Backpacks showed up, travel mugs in hand, to a church milling with 20 or so people. Apparently the minister had been unable to come as his mother had acquired a spot in a long term care facility, and he had to be there to settle her in. There were no snacks or drinks, and people were perplexed about whether to stay or go. Fortunately one woman stepped up and said “Well we’re all here, let’s just make a go of it.”
A very much improvised ceremony evolved. Candles were lit and then blown out when someone suggested we should start with one flame and pass it along, like the Olympic torch. Someone else figured out how to turn out the church lights, and another suggested we form a circle. Eventually we were passing the flame along, saying a nice thing about welcoming the season, bringing good things into the world, talking about loved ones we were thinking about.
Well that’s what got me. One woman across the circle from me, wearing a bright pink scarf, her thick white hair loosely tied into a bun, started to cry softly. The man standing next to her gently put his hand on her back. The candle flame had traveled to a woman who said she was thinking about her brother who was 45 and recently diagnosed with cancer.
Suddenly the distance between us and our family and friends back in Ontario seemed to be very, very far. I haven’t spent Christmas with my immediate family in years – traveling in Northern Ontario in the winter is not fun, so years ago my friend Tristan and I started a tradition of spending Christmas day with his mother. Sometimes I wouldn’t see Tristan or his Mom for the whole year, but Christmas was always our day, our holiday ritual. It was a cozy comfort for me when I couldn’t be with my immediate and extended family.
So there we were, so far from all that was familiar to us at a time of year when we crave the comfort of tradition and familiarity. We love Ucluelet, but right now everything is new. Nothing is familiar or comforting. So I started to cry quietly in the small church, in the soft glow of the candlelight, surrounded by a community of not-yet-friends.
I quietly said to the circle that I was thinking of my family and friends back in Ontario. The woman in the pink scarf said she was thinking of her sister who passed away just before Christmas last year. One woman who spoke with confidence and experience, talked about the circle of death and the birth of new life, how we are all connected. It was comforting.
Silva, a woman with dark curly hair and an impish smile, recited from memory The Shortest Day by Susan Cooper:
“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.
They lighted candles in the winter trees;
They hung their homes with evergreen;
They burned beseeching fires all night long
To keep the year alive,
And when the new year’s sunshine blazed awake
They shouted, reveling.
Through all the frosty ages you can hear them
Echoing behind us – Listen!
All the long echoes sing the same delight,
This shortest day,
As promise wakens in the sleeping land:
They carol, fest, give thanks,
And dearly love their friends,
And hope for peace.
And so do we, here, now,
This year and every year.
We then sang a verse of “This Little Light of Mine” which got everyone smiling.
Kat & I biked home, feeling light-hearted and happy. How wonderful to be biking just before Christmas. We talked about the things we’re doing this year which will become our Christmas traditions of the future – new traditions for our new life. We’ll probably go to the Solstice service in the years that follow and remember the first time. We’re planning on making a black forest cake for Christmas this year, which has been a birthday tradition for us, but we feel like we need something familiar. Black forest cake will probably become a Christmas tradition for us too.
The Longest Night has come and gone – it’s all uphill from here.