Monday, December 29, 2008

An Enchanted Winter Solstice in Florida

An Enchanted Winter Solstice
Thursday, December 18 2008
Enchanted Forest, Elaine Gordon Park
North Miami, FL

Nature class focused on the return of the light and the ancient history of celebrating in winter this week, in honor of the winter solstice (the shortest day of the year and the beginning of winter). We met at the Enchanted Forest (not Santa's Enchanted Forest) in north Miami. The park is a staple to the community and has been around for a long time. One of the highlights of going to the park is the horse stables, there are many beautiful horses waiting to be touched and loved by all the children. The kids couldn't get enough of them.

We met on the boardwalk, overlooking a waterway of brackish water, probably meandering down from canals and meeting with the water from the bay not too far away. Along the sides of this waterway are some of the oldest, tallest red mangroves that I have ever seen. Ibis were snacking along the sides, turtles were floating meditatively, and a huge orange and green iguana was camouflaged in the tree above us.

I showed the kids a small globe and demonstrated, with a great deal of help from the kids, how the earth tilts and how the northern and southern hemispheres have the beginning of winter and summer, respectively, at the solstice. We talked a bit about how the days are shorter in the winter and how the winter solstice would be the shortest day of the year.

During our nature walk through a lovely hammock filled with ancient live oaks, dahoon holly, strangler fig, gumbo limbo, and wild coffee, we discussed the ancient symbolism of some of the plants we encountered. For example, the oak. The oak is a tree that has been revered for eons. It is the tree of Jupiter, it symbolizes strength and endurance, and is the all important yule log. On midwinter eve, in lands across northern Europe, a fire would be lit with a branch from the oak. That branch would be passed around to light all the fires of the community. It stood for life - continuity and light. Withought light, people couldn't hunt or grow food, so the longer days of the summer were very, very important and people celebrated the fact that they were heading toward summer. Holly is another ancient plant, people believed that it enhanced fertility and cured disease. It bloomed in the winter, which made it a beautiful sight on dark, gray days.

As we walked the kids flaunted their nature knowledge by telling me what plants were what even before I asked. They are becoming expert botanists. One little naturalist even spotted a tiny black racer snake as we stopped to talk about limestone.

After our walk we sat in a semi-circle at the fire pit. It had wonderful benches for everyone - that way I had a "proper" audience! What's an audience without a story? So, we had a story. The kids all voted for a spoken story as opposed to a written one. I told the tale of how Grandmother Spider caught the sun. It is an old Native American myth explaining why we only have full sun part of the year (we have to share it with the other side), why the fox has a black tongue (burnt by the sun), why the possum has a bare tail (also burnt by the sun) and why the vulture has a bare head (again, burnt by the sun). I have to admit that I had an enraptured audience (adults included).

Then, we painted suns and stripes on the kid's faces - got a bit tribal! We passed out votive candles to each child, sat them in a circle, lit the candles and each child said what the sun meant to them. It was a beautiful ceremony.

Finally, I handed some oats and dried berries out to the kids and had them spread them around the forest. I know it was against the rules, but it felt right (except when the boys threw them into the water to feed the birds and turtles - I didn't want to actually "feed" the animals directly). It is a tradition in northern places to do this for the animals, especially when the winter is hard and frozen. This last activity dispersed us and sent us on our different ways, to celebrate our own traditions and share in the beauty and love of this holiday season.

This time of year makes most of us nostalgic. Traditions, customs and memories become center-stage and take over our minds, bodies, and homes. Trees go up, some as early as the day after Thanksgiving (or maybe even earlier - yikes!), lights get strung, red and green decorations adorn our houses. There are many different reasons for celebrating - Chanukah, Christmas, Winter Solstice, Kwanza, Saturnalia, Yule, Ramadan and many more across the world. Celebrating at this time of year is an age-old, timeless tradition and it is due to the light of the sun, or lack of it in the northern hemisphere.

Every year, twice a year, because of the way the earth is tilted on its axis, we have a solstice of the sun - one in winter and one in summer. The origin of the word, "solstice", is the Latin word, "solstitium", from sol, “sun” and -stitium, “a stoppage" - because it has been observed that the noontime elevation of the sun remains the same for a few days before and after the solstice. Astronomically speaking, solstice is when the sun is at its furthest point away from the equator. Here in the northern hemisphere, winter solstice happens when the sun is at the furthest point south of the equator that it will go, due to the tilt of the earth on its axis; that furthest point is when the sun is directly over the tropic of Capricorn. When the sun reaches that point either on December 20 or 21st of each year, the northern half of the earth gets less light and more cold. When the sun is over the tropic of Cancer on June 20 or 21st of each year, we have the summer solstice - the longest day of the year.

This phenomenon will make sense if you take a look at a globe and locate the equator, tropic of Cancer and tropic of Capricorn. Look for the northern hemisphere (above the equator) and the southern hemisphere (below the equator) and find the tropics. The southern hemisphere is opposite of us and they are just about to begin their summer!! They celebrate Christmas and New Years in the summer!!! Look at Australia, which hemisphere is it in? What about South America?

For me, the most important part of all the traditions is the winter solstice. On this shortest day of the year, my son and I got out our "evergreens and holly" - both symbolic of the circle of life and the returning of life, hung our lights - symbolizing the light returning and strengthening after the solstice, and prepared our gifts to be given - symbolizing celebration!

As a nature teacher and mother, I wanted to make the solstice special, a time to remember how the natural order of things influences our lives in so many ways.

Here in Florida we don't notice the dark and cold as much as they do up north, but it is obvious, it gets dark earlier, the air is drier and a bit cooler. We live in the place that people flock to in the winter. Instead of staying home by a warm fire, this is the time of year to get out and play in nature (sans mosquitoes, humidity and horrible heat).

South Florida doesn't have many trees that lose their leaves and hibernate - most of our trees are "evergreens" all year, it's a bit different here. However, most of us come from somewhere else, and we want to be like everyone else in some way or another, so we have blow up snow men on our front lawns (well, not me), we have fake snow on our trees, and we crank up the air conditioner so that we can pretend it's cold outside in order to drink hot cocoa.

And we get outside....

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