Some Personal Reflections on the Solstice Spiral
First the names: this festival/ceremony can be called either a Solstice Spiral or an Advent Garden. The winter solstice is the shortest day and longest night of the year. It is a time of cold darkness, when ancient people may have worried about the sunlight returning, when people gather indoors to celebrate a coming new year and share warmth and light with fires (the Yule log) and candles. A spiral is the simplest maze and is found in many cultures from Celtic knot-work designs to Native American carvings. Tracing a spiral leads you inward to a center point and then outward again. Kindergarteners (and sometimes adults, too) find it really amazing when they play a circle winding-up game; the teacher leads the line of children spiraling in, in, tighter and tighter until they are a big clump in the middle, and then turns and leads them out, out, until they are a circle again, but facing outwards. Advent is the four weeks before Christmas, the time of waiting and preparing for the coming of the Christ child. These weeks can celebrate four parts of the world: first the mineral kingdom, then plants, then animals, and finally human beings. Gardens are special places, and everyone has their own associations with gardens, a place of beauty, growing things, and so on.
The spiral garden itself is usually built up of evergreens, pine and hemlock boughs and mosses, and maybe rainbow colored silks. Like Christmas trees, the evergreens (by staying green) remind us of life and hope continuing when everything around seems negative and dying. Among the greens, are placed pretty rocks, crystals, and shells to represent the mineral world, maybe pine cones or dry flowers, and little wooden or stuffed toy animals for the animal kingdom. There are also log blocks as places to set candles. In the center, on a higher stump is a single, large candle with maybe a beautiful big crystal or a nativity scene. The spiral forms a pathway, symbolizing a journey to some spiritual light.
Often the individual candle holders are apples, red being a Christmas color, but also the apple is a reminder of the Paradise/ Garden of Eden story. If there had not been a Fall and life as we know it, there would not have been a need for redemption and the birth of Christ.
At first the room containing the spiral will be dim. Depending on the space, the families who come may sit all around the spiral, the community that surrounds and supports the individual who walks the spiral. There is usually a harpist or other quiet music to set the mood. Adults may have an unlit candle when they enter and then pass the flame around, one to the next, lighting their candles in a spirit of sharing. During the ceremony, either the audience is quiet with just the instrumental music or everyone may sing Christmas carols throughout. Some places only young children walk the spiral, while other places people of all ages do it.
A teacher, or a high school girl, dressed in white robes with a star crown, and sometimes even silk wings, stands at the entrance to the spiral; she obviously symbolizes a guardian angel or spiritual guide. To start the ceremony, the angel walks slowly through the spiral, lights the single candle at the center, and returns to the beginning to guide the children.
The children walk the spiral one at a time, with the angel there behind to help them if they need it (and make sure they do not set the place on fire if they stumble) but, like life, it is the child’s own journey. A little baby may be carried through the spiral by the mother, but otherwise the child goes independently. Each child is given a small candle in a holder, walks in to the center, lights his/her own candle from the large one, turns around, and walks out, putting the little candle in whatever spot they choose. The way children do the walk often shows interesting aspects of their personality. Some stride purposefully through the path; some look in wonder at all the little treasures and lights on the way; some look back at their parents or the audience; some get confused at the turning point and need guidance. Some children focus on carrying their candle carefully; some put it down quickly; some think hard about a special place to put their candle; and some would like to keep it. For adults, it can be inspiring to see how children can sometimes take in a moment of quiet and beauty and respond reverently. Of course, sometimes it is not the right time for them. It is wonderful how the dim room gradually gets brighter as more children go through the spiral, each adding their own light.
Thus, the advent garden or solstice spiral can represent a spiritual journey. One goes inward reflecting on various aspects of the world and the lights other people before have brought. At the center of oneself or from a higher being, one might find some inspiration. Then, one comes back out and needs to decide what to do with it for others.
The words of a Hanukkah song also suit the solstice spiral:
Each of us is one small light,
But together we shine bright.
Go away darkest, deepest night.
Go away-- make way for light.
Notes by Lynne Pentler, Infant room teacher, 2010