By Michel Colville & Fred Allendorf
Open Way Sangha in Montana has celebrated the Winter Solstice together for the last four years. Winter Solstice is the first day of winter and the longest night of the year. It has been an important ceremonial time for humans since the dawn of our species. Our celebration was initiated by Rolly Meinholtz to celebrate the beginning of the return of the sun in the midst of the snow—short days and long nights of a Montana winter. Solstice gives us a wonderful opportunity to give gifts of the spirit: retelling a seasonal memory, a song or instrumental music, a poem, a painting, a dance or mime, or sharing a special story; all to help celebrate the advent of winter and the return of light.
Our celebration begins Saturday night closest to the solstice with a sitting period and precept recitation. Last year our celebration fell upon the full moon. Sunday morning begins with a welcome to newcomers who did not spend the night at the lodge and a sitting period while waiting for the winter sun to rise. Our walking meditation that follows this early morning meditation is perhaps the most moving part of our solstice festival. We walk through the woods to an evergreen tree that has been selected by Rolly. The snow is deep and we often have to struggle to get to the tree. Once at the site, one of us talks of the hardships that wild animals face in the winter: the cold, the lack of food, and the many accidents that can befall them. We sing in celebration of these animals and each other. Each person then places a gift to the animals on the tree to help them survive until spring, and says a few words about what this giving means for them. Then we return to the lodge to share in a potluck that mirrors the giving of food to the animals.
In the afternoon, we come together for a formal tea ceremony and a sharing of gifts of the heart. The ceremony that Rolly has developed for this is beautiful and moving. The room is dark except for the candles on the altar. As each person comes forward to give their intangible gift, they light a candle to symbolize the return of the light that heralds the coming of spring. They then share a song, a poem, or whatever they wish that has special meaning to them.
As each person comes forward the light in the room becomes stronger, just as each day adds a small amount of light to bring us to the Spring Equinox. By the end of the ceremony, the room is quite bright as the altar blazes with many candles. We end with songs of jubilation for the wonderful season and the beautiful friends we are able to share it with.
Michel Colville and Fred Allendorf, members of the Order of Interbeing, live in Missoula, Montana.