, Salem, MA


December 15, 2011

The shortest day


According to our calendar, New Year's Day is still a few weeks off. But according to nature's own timetable, the year will turn next Wednesday, at the winter solstice.

This shortest day and longest night of the year marks the point where the days gradually start to grow lighter.

As distant as spring might seem with so much winter still ahead, the promise of its return can at least be acknowledged.

To celebrate the solstice, park ranger Christine Dean will host a free program Wednesday night at Endicott Park that explores the facts and lore surrounding this pivotal day.

Evergreens, for instance, are a constant part of solstice traditions, beginning with the ancient Romans.

Evergreens must possess divine properties, the Romans believed, because they were able to flourish in spite of winter temperatures.

On a more scientific note, Dean will explain the difference between evergreens and conifers, while contrasting them with the deciduous trees that change with the seasons.

But she will also rely on accounts from another source, older than the Romans, but closer to home.

"There are some really neat Native American stories you can look at that explain why some trees lose their leaves and others keep their needles all year-round," Dean said.

The use of evergreens in Christian tradition will also be discussed, when families meet in the visitors center.

"Decorating the trees at Christmas with apples and lights was the tradition, so we'll actually make some candles," Dean said. "We'll make little lanterns that we'll take out on our walk to signify the light. Instead of apples, we'll make pinecone bird feeders."

Yule logs are another tradition that traveled from ancient to Christian cultures, and families at the solstice celebration will decorate their own with evergreen and berries.

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