Thursday, December 25, 2014

Awake! Solstice Night at Longwood!

We have always been a family very in tune with the cycles of nature, of light and dark, warmth and chill. We sometimes joke (though we mean it very seriously) that our love for the outdoors and of nature is in our blood and bone. We reflect the passions of generations of farmers and seafarers, tradesmen and travellers, millworkers and miners, who all relished in the chance to fish, hunt, hike, and dig in the dirt. During this winter season, we visited Longwood Gardens not far from here, in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, to give our ancestral selves a nice winter's walk. In our family the month of December is a time when we celebrate all of our family traditions, immersed in the wonder of a natural year. Winter solstice is among my favorites.

The Red Bird Tree with the Ecologist and the Horticulturalist, and their Mom.

Celebrating the Yule traditions acknowledges our Scot and German ancestors who no doubt were celebrating winter solstice long before any Christian conversions and the Church's acquisition of non-Christian earth-centered holidays. Hogmanay, the ancient Scot celebration of winter solstice, was always more important than Christmas - and still is in Scotland and Cape Breton! The decorating of tables and mantels with symbols of nature, outdoor bonfires, street parties, and a shot of Scotch whiskey before sunrise as the long night comes to an end is enthusiastically observed by Scots. The Love family (Clan Mackinnon) was no exception - especially the whiskey-before-dawn part!

Indigo skies outside signal the beginning of the longest night of the year - ring the bells!

The German tradition of the solstice tree precedes the Christian celebration of Christ's birth by several thousand years. The tradition of the Odin's Great Hunt and the 12 Days of Yule were practiced by ancient Germanic and Norse tribes for as long as memory goes, and evergreen trees especially treasured for their miraculous defiance of winter's cold and the promise of ever-lasting life, were guests of honor at great feasts. These traditions play out today with the burning of the yule log and decorated trees both on the table top and in the yard. As a mid-winter festival, German solstice was a grand all-nighter filled with dancing storytelling, and beer-before-sunrise! They must have shared this tradition with the Scots! Though there is no drinking at Longwood, great tables are spread with immense beauty and attention to natural detail.

The Peacock Tree is the main guest at this table.

To our Amish neighbors here in Lancaster and York Counties, ideas of Christmas are simple. The humility and simplicity of Christ's birth are held as singularly sacred. The Amish do not decorate, and concentrate instead on family dinners at both Thanksgiving and Christmas. It is at these great feasts (on the food!!) that tables are decorated with holly, pine boughs, candles, and sweets. Often at solstice time, a few candles appear at their windows but they abide by the Second Commandment and avoid the commercialism, anything-Santa, and do not exchange gifts. They display absolutely no nativity scenes or knick-knacks that suggest images of holy persons or events. The Amish, Mennonites, and German Quakers of PA place Christmas in an unadorned perspective that fosters deep appreciation and meditation for the birth of babe in a stable. Even so, there were many German Mennonite folks on the walk with us this night who, like us, were in awe of the beauty of the trees.

A classic German tree features simple decorations from nature and lights.

N.C. Wyeth who maintained a farm and studio nearby in Chadds Ford, PA, used many German farmers and their family members as models in his paintings (a tradition carried on by Andrew). He often remarked how simple the German Christmas celebration was compared to the crass commercialism of Philadelphia and its spreading suburbs. The age of consumerism, he said, ruined the ancient traditions of winter.  I can only imagine what he would think today. Up until the 1970s there was a large local market for wreath-making and cut trees provided for city dwellers by German farm communities in PA. Today, sadly, Christmas comes from Walmart and Target, though many Amish continue the winter market tradition of making fresh wreaths and amazing holiday baked goods. Longwood tradition, according to a guide who directed us to the library rooms, maintains that greenery and trees all must be sourced from tree farms and nurseries locally. I was very happy to hear this.

Cardinal Tree in the Conservatory .

As our family toured the beautiful traditional trees displayed in the main Conservatory, we were awestruck by the huge 'red bird tree' decorated with large handmade cardinals. This is a big nod to the Celtic tradition - so our Irish, Welsh, and French roots stirred a little! This tree featured the traditional bundles of nuts and berries, symbols of hope for bounty, fertility, and a good harvest to come. Red birds, believed to carry the warmth of the sun on their wings that lengthened the days with sunlight, were in the form of Northern Cardinals, native to North America. Garlands of golden lights represented the unbroken cycle of Life, while twigs of birch painted silver and white honored the 'Month Following Solstice' - a month of new beginnings. I imagine, if he had been here with us to see it, the Red Bird tree would have been one of Pierre DuPont's favorites.

Grand Entry of the Conservatory features a very showy feather bundle in a vase.

Feathers and birds are important symbols for many cultural traditions of winter solstice and these were full-on throughout the Conservatory trees and displays! Native Americans of the Eastern Woodlands did not wear the large feathered bonnets of the western tribes, but used feathers in bundles of decorative seed pods, twigs, and greenery tied to trees in winter to symbolize the connections of sky and earth, light to dark, warmth to cold. The modern and very touristy 'dream-catcher' is a very distant cousin of the winter feather bundle. Our Eastern Indian ancestors were tying bundles in our hearts as feathers were everywhere! It's amazing how powerful the symbolism of feathers and birds are to so many world traditions.

German blown-glass ornaments intensified the shimmer and splash of twinkling lights.

The ancient symbolism may have been missed by most who visited Longwood on Solstice Night, but the displays were filled to the brim with colors and forms that acknowledged our ancestral ties to the winter season. I heard one guest exclaim that there were no nativity scenes! Honestly, I am glad there were no religious displays, and I can count on Longwood to not have anything of the sort. It is immensely beautiful to celebrate the beauty of nature and the old traditions without any religious inferences. Our family celebrates all of the winter traditions and Longwood serves up the month-long celebration in great heaping bowls of beauty. Thanks for another year of bringing Light and Life to our family of so many traditions, especially for honoring our love of Nature in such spectacular ways!

The Avenue of Trees.

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