In literal terms, “solstice” means “sun stands still.” This year, according to the Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute, the sun will stand still (in the Northern Hemisphere, at least) at 6:03 p.m. EST on Sunday, Dec. 21. That night will be the longest of the year, and the solstice will mark the official onset of the winter season.
To honor the occasion, the Hendersonville-based Environmental and Conservation Organization will host its annual Winter Solstice Night Hike in the DuPont State Forest. Described as “ECO’s annual favorite event,” the hike meets at 7 p.m. and will consist of a trek to Hooker Falls.
The event has been taking place for close to 15 years, says ECO co-founder Mary Jo Padgett. “Attendance runs the whole gamut,” she says. “One year we had close to 100 people; some years, 20 people attended.”
“We’re celebrating the longest night of the year, and to remind us that we have night vision — even though we rarely get to use it,” Padgett continued. “The hike is an effort to connect to nature, and the thing that makes it special and attracts people is the opportunity to walk in the woods at night. We really like to celebrate the darkness,” she said.
Human cultures from across the globe have celebrated the winter solstice for millennia. In 4900 B.C., the Gosseck Circle — a series of concentric rings dug into the ground — was built in Germany. Its gates welcomed the sunrise and sunset on the winter solstice. In 3200 B.C., a grass mound was built in Newgrange, Ireland; its interior would flood with light on the solstice. A similar structure was designed in Scotland around 2800 B.C.
Most famous of all, perhaps, England’s Stonehenge was erected around 3000 B.C. as, many scholars have argued, a meeting place to celebrate both the winter and the summer solstices.
To our forbears and to people today, the winter solstice represents a time of renewal and rebirth. The ancient Romans celebrated each December with their weeklong “feast of Saturnalia.” The Persian peoples marked the winter solstice with an homage to Mithra, god of light. In fact, a number of researchers believe that our current Christmas celebrations are rooted in the Pagan recognition of the cycle of birth, death and resurrection that the winter solstice represented.
Whatever the tradition, after Dec. 21, the days get longer through the vernal equinox on March 20 and until the summer solstice on June 21. For those of us who love sunshine, then, the winter solstice signals the end of the increasing darkness. A light at the end of the tunnel, it heralds the return of the sun to the land.
“The solstices and the equinox are part of the planetary cycle,” says Padgett. “We tend to forget that the Earth runs on cycles.”
She adds, “My personal enjoyment comes from the reward of making the hike with other people — I find that aspect very rewarding. We get to realize how beautiful it is at night, especially in winter. The hike is a way of learning about the night.”
Although Padgett says that participants are encouraged to bring flashlights (they are, after all, hiking in the dark), she asserted that the group tries to reserve use of those lights until reaching the falls. “We shine our lights on the falls, and they light up in a very soft way — like magic,” Padgett says. “There is a very special energy that you can understand only by being there.”
Commenting on modern celebrations of the winter solstice and its Pagan origins, she says, “I think that’s why we light up at Christmas — we’re trying to bring the sun back.”
ECO’s Winter Solstice Night Hike will commence Sunday, Dec. 21, at DuPont State Forest. Interested parties should meet at the Hooker Falls parking lot on DuPont/Staton Road at 7 p.m. The event is free and open to the public. Hikers are encouraged to dress warmly.
ECO’s full press release about the event:
A NIGHTTIME WALK TO CELEBRATE THE WINTER SOLSTICE
(HENDERSONVILLE, NC, November 6, 2014) — To celebrate the winter solstice — the longest night of the year — a nighttime walk to Hooker Falls will be hosted by the Environmental and Conservation Organization (ECO) on Sunday, December 21, in Dupont State Forest, at 7 p.m. Meet at the Hooker Falls parking lot on DuPont/Staton Road in DuPont State Forest. There is no charge. The event is open to the public. Participants can register by calling the ECO office at 828-692-0385.
The stroll will be along a one-fourth mile trail to the base of Hooker Falls. In the dark of night we’ll create soft moonlight by shining flashlights upon the falls … creating a quiet moment to celebrate the return of the sun to the northern hemisphere.
Participants are invited to bring a thermos of warm drink, for we’ll toast the sun’s return when we return to the parking lot. Bring a flashlight for use when necessary. The event will be cancelled in case of heavy rain, snow or ice. A message will be on the ECO answer machine by 10 a.m. the morning of the walk in case of cancellation.
The winter solstice stroll has been sponsored by ECO for several years and is always a popular event. For more information, call ECO at 692-0385 or visit the website at www.eco-wnc.org. For directions to the Hooker Falls parking lot, visit the DuPont State Forest website at www.dupontforest.com.