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Winter Solstice and all that

From the looks of the weather lately, winter has certainly arrived. The days have grown shorter and the nights longer. On these clear, cold nights, Orion, Gemini, Taurus and blue Sirius command the skies.

Most of the trees have shed the last of their leaves. As I was driving home on a snow-covered patch of road a cluster of leaves skittered out in front of my car, dancing around a bit in the biting wind, before dashing across the street like a gang of reckless school kids. They looked out of place. Out of time.

But is the weather itself really out of time? "Unseasonably" cold? According to contemporary calendars we don't actually acknowledge the arrival of the snow and sleigh bells time of year until Dec. 21, the day of the winter solstice. By contrast, in calendars of earlier times, the solstice on Dec. 21 always signaled the middle of winter, a season that got under way on Halloween and lasted until Feb. 1.

However you choose to reckon it, we are deep in the midst of that holiday-rich time of year — wintertide. During November, December and January, we have a bountiful collection of sacred and secular themes to celebrate.

In the United States we vote in November. And our choices on the national level take office in January. Unlike our Canadian neighbors, we hold our major harvest festival, Thanksgiving, in November rather than October.

We start the New Year at the beginning of January instead of near the end of March like we used to in days past. The old New Year's Day has become the new first day of spring, the Vernal Equinox.

Hanukkah falls inside the November-to-February time span. So does Kwanzaa. Christmas is — by design — on the day that the Winter Solstice was celebrated. Back then, Shakespeare wrote "A Midsummer Night's Dream" about the kind of mischief and magic that was in the air six months later on June 21.

Locally we have found many ways to celebrate wintertide. We have holiday parades, bazaars and craft fairs. At a time of year marked by gratitude and generosity, we prepare free meals for our community members who need them. We hold benefits. We build gingerbread houses, celebrate festivals of trees and lights. We string lights everywhere. On our houses, on the buildings downtown and on lampposts. We are graced with choral and orchestral concerts in performance halls, churches, school auditoriums and street corners. We listen to — and sing along with — Handel's "Messiah." The Trail Band, Gypsy Soul, and Tomáseen Foley and friends make their much anticipated annual appearances. School children put on their holiday shows before they head off for winter vacation.

Winter has a tendency to make us wistful about the olden times. We want our Christmases white. We dust off Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" and Moore's "The Night Before Christmas." Carolers deck themselves in tall hats, and long coats for the gentlemen, bonnets and hooped skirts for the ladies, and scarves and gloves for all. The city of Jacksonville goes Victorian for Christmas and so does Ashland's Winchester Inn.

It is no coincidence that the three plays currently on stage in the Rogue Valley are a panto in the Old English tradition at Oregon Cabaret Theatre; "Brigadoon" at Camelot Theatre about an 18th century Scottish village that reappears every 100 years; and "Little Women" at Oregon Stage Works, which steps right off the pages of the 19th century novel by Louisa May Alcott.

And there's the perennial ballet treat, "The Nutcracker," set in the 1890s and performed all over the country at this time of year. Here in the Rogue Valley, two different Southern Oregon dance companies have been presenting the ballet every year for nearly two decades.

In Ashland there are special Winter Solstice gatherings that have become annual traditions for the groups sponsoring them: Ashland Parks and Recreation, EarthTeach Park, Trinity Episcopal Church, Dancing People Company and Red Earth Descendants. Stories from many cultural traditions are shared. There are bonfires, music, dance and words to ponder as we explore together our connection with light and darkness both in the world of nature and within ourselves.

Wintertide is definitely a time for taking a serious look inside. But our introspection is balanced by a thousand excuses to go outside, socialize and generally be mindful of others at a time we'd much rather be alone at home under the covers with a good book. There will be time for that later. Now it's time to celebrate. Just look at the calendar.