Christmas and Hanukkah tend to occupy the hearts and minds of many worshipers this time of year. And with good reason, of course.

But there's also the winter solstice, which is observed by Wiccans, American Indians as well as other earth-based spiritual groups. At least one Twin Cities church is celebrating the change in the earth's cycle, too.

First Universalist Church in Minneapolis has been holding an annual winter solstice ceremony for 30 years now. This year the event is being held at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the church at 3400 Dupont Av. S.

Pamela Vincent, who organizes the solstice ceremony at the Unitarian Universalist church, said the congregation wants to celebrate the longest night of the year and "rejoice in the returning of the sun."

"It's a time to recognize the gifts that come out of the darkness," said Vincent. "That it's necessary to go dark. It's necessary to go fallow in order to renew and grow in the coming of the light.

"Just like seeds underground need this time of darkness to germinate and come forth again in the spring, I think the human spirit recognizes the necessity to go deep, to go dark and to understand the gifts that are there for you."

The 12-minute ceremony begins with music and opening words from the minister. Participants "call the four directions": north, south, east, west. The group also chants and a story is recited. This year's story comes out of an African tradition and is about animals that are "in the dark and decide they want light," Vincent said.

"The story moves us from sunlight into total darkness ... accompanied by a drum beat. Being together in the darkness with just this drum beat, it can be an incredibly moving and powerful experience."

Candles are lit and the church is filled with light again. The congregation then adjourns, eats and enjoys dancing and more music.

She says First Universalist is trying to "honor those natural cycles of life and nature and find beauty and meaning in them."

Rose French • 612-673-4352