It was winter solstice Wednesday. Solstice is a holiday that flies under the radar in these parts, but not necessarily everywhere. In a way we all celebrate it. It is at the root of all the December holidays. When it does pass unnoticed, it may simply be because it is the rare holiday built on scientific fact. Thanks to the special relationship between the earth and the sun we have a "shortest day". No god in his chariot made this happen.
The forces of ecology and personal biology make this a particularly difficult time for may of us. That is the real reason for the parties, the festivals, the light in the dark. Since the birth of the solar system--roughly--there has been the fact of winter. It is a fact that we sometimes grapple with. Often it is a fact that changes and molds us.
It deserves a moment of our time, doesn't it? These layers of legend decorating winter solstice, as beautiful as they are, can otherwise obscure a primal element of human existence. The dark comes. So, too, does the cold, the ice, and the famine. Therefore, it is good to find a way to mark the moment when the darkness recedes, even though the winter is just beginning. Doing so helps us to understand our place as part of nature. It also reminds us that the sun--and spring and better days--will also return in their time.
For me, this year's observance of solstice came down to two walks. The first of these was on the solstice day, itself. Every year the church hosts some sort of walk to mark the occasion. It is a ritual, but it rests lightly on us. At our most hardcore--a few years ago--we would take a midnight stroll through the outdoor labyrinth at nearby Wellesley College. That was a hearty little group!
Since the plague, however, we have erred on the side of--relative--accessibility. Even these days we feel the struggle to gather sometimes. Being outdoors is uncomfortable, but at least we know we can be together. With this in mind, we now hike up Pegan Hill right here in the neighborhood. Instead of midnight we chase the sunset around 4:30. Then we sing carols until it is too dark to see the lyric sheets even with our "vigil candles". Finally we hike down, grab refreshments at a nearby congregants' house, and move on to our own dinners.
My job this year was to organize the thing and play the ukulele. The tension is always between formality or informality and we haven't quite figured it out. Is this an earth-centered worship service or a fun carol walk with friends? It is somewhere in the middle, which can make it tricky to plan.
It has been a while since I have been up on Pegan Hill in the light of day. It is pretty then, but for me--thanks to these nocturnal gigs--it is usually perpetual twilight. On a clear day or evening one can see the Pack Monadnocks in New Hampshire. This is one of the benefits of Eastern Massachusetts's flatness. Any rise is prominent.
At 410 feet, Pegan is the tallest rise in town. The name comes from a faction of the Natick Praying Indians who farmed it. Though the Praying Indians are still around and sometimes worship at our church--built on the spot of their original congregation--we do not know what happened specifically to the Pegan group. I thought of them Wednesday as I do whenever I am up there. There is so much we miss in history and relationships that we can only speculate at now. The human history that this hill represents is complicated. It is important to recognize humanity at its worst so maybe, as the earth turns again, we can do a better job.
The second hike was the next day. It ended up being a small, solo celebration of the promise of more light. After my work was mostly done I drove an hour to the Leominster State Forest and climbed up to the Crow Hill Ledges that look out toward Mount Wachusett. There was snow for this one. It felt like winter, which of course was the point...and also a bit of an obstacle. Micro spikes were necessary and some of the rock faces were quite slick. Still, I took my time even though I knew the dark wasn't far away.
Of course the extra light on Thursday as compared to Wednesday was not much. It won't be for some time. That said, it was still a hint and a promise. Snow and ice get pretty old pretty fast for me. In a couple of weeks my animal brain will be living for spring. There is nothing I can do about this; just push forward and find joy where I can. I lingered for a while under the massive cliffs, which were more impressive than the view. Then I put my headlamp on and got back to the car in time to grab some food and go play TTRPG's with friends. Then I drove home from Worcester in the rain.
If you want to replicate these hikes, neither is terribly strenuous. Pegan Hill is probably about a mile round trip and--if you don't go exploring down random trails like I did--Crow Hill Ledges is about the same. The footing on Pegan is solid for a suburban hike. There was some sketchy scrambling on the ledges, though. It would be worth considering before heading out. Leominster State Forest--where the ledges are--seems worth exploring. So you can expect more posts from there in the future!
I hope you are all having a blessed holiday and you are getting what you want and need from this time. As I write this the power is out and my tasks are becoming unmoored! Oh well, nature has its say apparently. There are things that just won't get done.
I am a full-time pastor in a small, progressive church in Massachusetts. This blog is about the non-church things I do to find spiritual sustenance.