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Celebrating the solstice: Sibley State Park program held on longest night of year

Conor Reed, 7, right, his mother Mary Slinden, of Willmar, decorate prayer sticks Wednesday night as part of the winter solstice program at Sibley State Park near New London. (Carolyn Lange / Tribune)1 / 3
Ashley, left, and Dylan Erickson, of New London, decorate prayer sticks Wednesday night as part of the winter solstice program at Sibley State Park near New London. (Carolyn Lange / Tribune)2 / 3
As Erik Homme, of Lake Lillian, left, looks on, Kelsey Olson, naturalist at Sibley State Park, lights candles for a yule log Wednesday night as she reads traditional verses during a program about the winter solstice at the park near New London. (Carolyn Lange / Tribune)3 / 3

NEW LONDON — As a few shooting stars zipped overhead, about 20 people hiked on a snow-packed trail Wednesday evening into the woods at Sibley State Park to celebrate the longest night of the year.

As the group stood quietly, picking out constellations and shivering in the brisk breeze, there was reassurance that there would be more light today.

With just 8 hours and 45 minutes of daylight, Wednesday was the shortest day of the year and the longest night of the year and signaled the official start of winter, explained Sibley State Park Naturalist Kelsey Olson during a winter solstice program at the park in rural New London.

"It's the last day of darkness before the sun comes back again," she said.

Olson led a series of hands-on exercises that explained the natural and religious implications of the solstice.

Using 11-year-old Kaden Taube of Willmar as a model of Earth, Olson explained how the Earth is tilted away as it revolves around the sun, and the Northern Hemisphere is currently titled the farthest away from the sun during the solstice.

Olson also explained the connections between modern Christmas holiday traditions and ancient pagan religions and cultural practices that coincided with the astronomical milestone of the solstice when the sun seems to stand still.

Because it would be hard not to notice that "something strange happens on this day," Olson said for thousands of years people have recognized — and celebrated — the winter solstice.

In the past "it was a celebration of the changing of the seasons," Olson said. "It was a time to pause and look at this last time of darkness turning over to light."

Many of the popular Christmas traditions — like the use of mistletoe by the Druids, holly being a symbol of love and peace and singing carols — have deep roots in ancient practices tied to the solstice, she said.

As part of the program, participants made "prayer sticks" that they decorated with feathers and glitter that represented their hopes for the new year.

The sticks were later thrown into a bonfire that warmed the hikers after the short walk into the woods "so your well-wishes can go up into the sky," Olson said.

As she lit candles on a yule log, Olson read several traditional solstice verses with images of a cold earth where the wind blows, the rain falls and the fire dwindles. "Let the light of the sun find its way home," the verse concluded.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for 35 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

(320) 894-9750