By Coggin Heeringa, Interpretive Naturalist, Crossroads at Big Creek, Inc.
With the exception of our friends in the Door Peninsula Astronomical Society who think fifteen hours of darkness is a good thing, most of us, regardless of our ancestry or religious beliefs, long for light during this dark part of the year.
At the exact same moment all over the world – Thursday, December 21, at 9:27 pm CST— the Earth’s northern axis will be tilted the farthest away from the Sun, which means we in the Northern Hemisphere will experience the longest night of the year.
This year at Crossroads, we will take advantage of the fact that Friday is not a school night, and celebrate the Winter Solstice on Friday, December 22, when the daylight will linger just a few seconds longer than on the longest night. In the early dark of evening, Crossroads will host a luminary hike and campfire for the community.
A surprising number of our current religious traditions have roots in pagan beliefs. In ancient times, the decreasing hours of daylight, the apparent death of plants and hibernating animals, and winter cold must have been frightening indeed. People developed rituals to encourage the Sun to return.
What we celebrate at the holiday season is a meld of religious rituals, pagan customs and cultural traditions. Almost all revolve around light and hope. In addition to Hanukkah, Christmas and Kwanza, at least a dozen religious or cultural celebrations occur within a few days of the Winter Solstice.
During the holiday season, we burn Yule logs, festoon our homes with holly and mistletoe, and bring trees indoors. But, because our nights are bright with artificial daylight, we sometimes forget the significance of “photoperiod,” the period of time each day in which a living organism receives light. It is significant. Plants, animals, and many humans respond metabolically to the length of day and night.
With our celebration, we join with people of many traditions as we light candles, burn logs, deck the halls, and gather with family and friends for singing and good cheer. Crossroads’ Luminary Hike starts at the Collins Learning Center. Arrive any time between 5:30 and 7:00 p.m. No reservation necessary. The candlelit trail is ½-mile long, and you may choose to walk it as many times as you’d like.
In spite of the fact that many folks bring evergreen trees indoors this time of year (which, when you think about it, is odd), our forests are still green with conifer trees. The Saturday Science program this week is “A Hike to the Conifer Forest,” which will be geared to learners of all ages. Unless the weather outside is frightful, the group will hike to different forests within the Big Creek Preserve to learn how trees survive a Wisconsin winter. This program is free and open to the public.
By Tuesday, many families will be tired of sitting around the house. Beaver families, in contrast, seem to be more than happy to hang around in their lodges all winter. The first of our holiday week family programs will be “Meet the Beaver” with games, videos, and demonstrations to help families get to know more about these flat-tailed rodents. These programs are free, and learners of all ages are welcome.