Bundled against the cold, a circle of people stand in the dark street, cheering as flames engulf a boxy cardboard figure in the center of the crowd. Small children approach and run back quickly from the bonfire, passers-by pause to watch, and cars turning down this quiet neighborhood route back up hastily and drive away.
Creepy cultish rite? A scene enacted from a Stephen King novel? Nothing so sinister is happening here. It’s just our family’s annual solstice ritual.
My husband put a match to our symbol of winter darkness. It went up with a whoosh, a blaze dramatic enough to satisfy every pyromaniac child present.
It began during a long-ago December, as the year wound down toward the shortest day — cold, rainy and dark. Hanukkah, our winter holiday, and Christmas, celebrated with grandparents, were still to come. But this year, with early darkness making afternoons and evenings with two small boys seem endless, and dispirited by weeks of gloom and cold, my husband and I found ourselves yearning for a way to mark the beginning of the end of shorter, darker days.
“I wish we could burn down winter,” my husband muttered.
“Burn?” said my 7-year-old eagerly.
“In a fire?” added his 4-year-old brother.
My husband looked thoughtful. Then he jumped up. “Come on, kids.” The boys followed him down to the basement. An hour later they summoned me down the stairs to meet Old Man Winter: A cut-out of a man affixed to a 5-foot-tall stack of newspaper-stuffed cardboard boxes stood before me. Old Man Winter was a natty fellow. Using poster paints, my husband and boys had given him a vest, a stovepipe hat and tall black boots. His face wore a scowl, his arms placed akimbo as if challenging anyone to arrest his Arctic onslaught.
I was impressed. But we could hardly burn Winter alone. With a week to go before the solstice, time was short; but we invited everyone we knew to bring their instruments, along with food, for a potluck. Our friends and neighbors must have been feeling the winter blahs, too: they turned out in force. The house rang with music from flute, violin, cello, accordion and banjo. The dining room table overflowed with food. Kids stuffed themselves with brownies and cake. Adults gathered in the kitchen to sample someone’s home-brew. As the festivity reached its height, we all trooped into the back yard, where Old Man Winter was ceremoniously placed atop the blackened, soggy remains of last summer’s tomato patch.
My husband cleared his throat. “Are we tired of winter?” he demanded.
The crowd shouted back, “Yes!”
“Do we want these long days and nights to end?” he continued, gaining steam. “Are we ready for the sun to return?”
Everyone, it seemed, was more than ready.
“So, what do we do with Old Man Winter?”
My boys, along with all the other kids, were beside themselves by this point. “Burn him up!”
My husband put a match to our symbol of winter darkness. It went up with a whoosh, a blaze dramatic enough to satisfy every pyromaniac child present. As the flames lit the sky and cast a ruddy glow on the gathered crowd, our neighbor Jeff played “Burning Ring of Fire” on his accordion. (And believe me, you have not lived until you’ve heard “Burning Ring of Fire” on the accordion.)
“Farewell to winter, and hail the unconquered sun!” yelled someone (possibly me).
Rituals bringing light to the darkest season are nothing new — for millennia, people around the world have been burning candles and bonfires at the solstice. And over the past 10 years, our party has become a tradition, too. Newcomers to the block are invited and become friends. Now teenagers, our boys have grown up anticipating the yearly festivities (although they consider themselves too cool now to sing along with “Burning Ring of Fire”). We’ve added famous quotes about winter to the ceremony, giving everyone a chance to read aloud, and with a bigger guest list, we’ve moved the climax of the party to the street (burning Winter on water-soaked asphalt seemed safer, too).
Over the years we've been throwing this party, toddlers have turned to teens. But while each season’s Old Man Winter looks a little different, most things about our solstice ritual have stayed the same: good friends, good food and fire to light the longest night. Every year, it’s a reminder that we can bring a little warmth back into the darkest days. All it takes is a little imagination, a few old cardboard boxes and a spark.
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