Twinkling lights line the trees, red and green splash the streets, and the hustle of the holiday season is everywhere. Celebration is in the air, as December brings us Hanukkah, Kwanza and Christmas. But there's another special day tucked in December, and it's one of the longest celebrated holidays in history: Yule, better known as the winter solstice.
This year, the winter solstice, the longest night of the year, will fall on Friday. Pagan-based religions have been celebrating the time when the nights reach their longest -- and begin to grow shorter again -- since the beginning of time.
Dawn Rising, Pagan and high-priestess of the Triformis coven in Pioneer Valley, is thrilled about this year's solstice.
"It's about a time of love and hope, and about bringing light back into our lives," she said. "The winter solstice is my favorite holiday."
What: Solstice Celebration
Gather at sundown for music and community unity, to ward off the cold with the warmth of the bonfire, sip hot cider, and listen to music.
When: Friday, 6 to 8:30 p.m.
Where: Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary, 127 Combs Road, Easthampton
Admission: Free. Please bring a nonperishable food item for the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts.
What: Solstice hike
Where: Bartholomew's Cobble, Sheffield
When: Friday, 4 to 6 p.m.
Admission: $5 for adults and $1 for children 6 to 12
Information: (413) 229-8600
What: Winter Solstice Celebration -- bonfire, songs, stories, ancient horn dances, mumming and Morris dancing
Where: Ashfield Common
When: Friday, 6:30 to 8 p.m.
Information: (413) 628-4254.
For information about dinner options beforehand at Elmer's Store, (413-628-4003
What: Solstice talk, ‘Kaput! ... 2012 Post Apocalyse'
When: Saturday at 3 p.m.
Where: Western Gateway Heritage State Park, Route 8, North Adams
Information: (413) 663-6312.
Websters defines Paganism as the following of a polytheistic religion, but Winifred Tannetta, Pagan and ownwer of Awentree, a "magickal" gift and healing arts shop in Easthampton, prefers the definition: "earth worshiping faith." Paganism is an umbrella term that covers Wiccans, Witches, Heathens, Druids and many other sects, just as Christianity covers Baptist, Catholics, Protestants, Presbyterians and Methodists.
"It's a celebratory faith," Tannetta explained. And on the longest night of the year, they celebrate.
For Pagans, the winter solstice is about "the return of the sun," Rising said. "It is the time when we come out of the darkness."
While most New Englanders consider winter the dark time of the year, in Paganism, winter is the light half of the year: The days steadily increase.
"Winter solstice is the time when the Oak King takes over, and he is the bringer of light," Rising explained. "He is the one that makes the days grow longer."
The winter solstice is the shortest day of the year, and each day that follows it will get progressively longer, until the summer solstice, which marks the beginning of the dark half of the year
There is no one way to celebrate the winter solstice.
"I'm a very progressive witch," said Rising, "so I gather things from different traditions and bring them into my own spiritual practice."
For her, fire is a big part of the winter solstice celebration. She explained that in ancient times people used fire to encourage the sun to shine. That tradition is still very much alive, as many who celebrate the winter solstice still incorporate fire today. In past years, Rising would attend the Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary winter solstice celebration in Easthampton, which has a bonfire, music and hot spiced cider.
Rising loves this "family friendly" event, but this year, she plans to do a ceremony with her coven, which will include special winter solstice rituals and traditions.
For many, Yule logs are a traditional part of the winter solstice celebrations. Yule logs are typically made out of birch, which signifies the rebirth of the sun, and are decorated with greenery and lined with candles. Rising generally likes to wear red during her solstice celebrations, since it's the color of the holly berry. And she tops that off with a headdress made from holly and oak. But she doesn't want to give too much away about her upcoming solstice celebration, so as not to spoil any surprises for her new coven members.
Food is also a big part of the Yule celebration. Tannetta rings in the winter solstice with her family by making a special meal and incorporating basic rituals and prayers. She likes to include root vegetables in her solstice meal, and before she became gluten-free she would bake bread in the shape of the sun.
Gluten-free or not, the baking tradition lives on in her family.
"We bake homemade pies and cookies," said Tannetta, "then we go around and deliver them to friends and family.
But the winter solstice certainly isn't a holiday reserved for Pagans.
"What's wonderful about solstice," said Rising, "is that you don't necessarily have to be pagan to follow it."
Rising explains that many winter solstice celebrations are not about professing a faith.
"Even if some members of a family are Pagan and some are Christian, winter solstice is something that can bring family together in celebration," she said. "It's a beautiful thing."
And Tannetta agrees that the winter solstice is a time for everyone.
"There's a lot of really neat customs surrounding solstice," she said. "Think of Hanukah and Christmas -- they're all celebrating the importance of the light and the promise of spring."