Jaime Meyer’s annual winter solstice celebration promises to include “mysterious music that Lutherans are not allowed to learn.”
It’s a joke, sure. But it’s also an alert. Billed as part shamanic ceremony and part theater performance, the event is intended to be taken at whatever level makes people comfortable.
“I don’t want anyone to freak out,” said Meyer, who will be leading celebrations Friday, Saturday and Sunday for the 12th year.
The very notion of a solstice celebration makes some people nervous because they see it as challenging their religious tenets, he said. Many of them see the celebration as a rival to Christmas.
But the two are not in competition, said the Rev. Ron Moor, whose Spirit United Church in southeast Minneapolis is holding its annual winter solstice celebration Saturday. “We have a wonderful Christmas Eve service, and we have a wonderful winter solstice service,” he said. “We celebrate the son — s-o-n — and the sun, s-u-n.”
Winter solstice marks the year’s shortest day — and, thus, the longest night — in terms of the hours of sunlight. While the focus of the celebrations has varied over the centuries and among cultures, a common theme is that of the light starting to push back against the darkness.
“Ancient cultures believed that by taking part in the celebration they were helping that happen,” Moor said. “Of course, now we know that’s not the case, but I still think that it’s kind of a neat concept.”
First Universalist Church in Minneapolis made peace with the notion of a solstice celebration years ago. Friday’s winter solstice celebration will be the church’s 34th consecutive one.
“It’s another way to celebrate this holiday period,” said Pamela Vincent, the church’s service coordinator. “It started with 12 women. Now it fills the sanctuary. We get 300 to 400 people. A lot of them are members, but we also draw heavily from the community.
“It’s a joyous celebration,” she said of the service.
Solstice-related events are exploding in popularity, said the Rev. Barbara Lund, director of the Wisdom Ways Center for Spirituality in St. Paul, which is holding its celebration Thursday.
“There are a lot of them,” she said. “People who are faith-based are finding a connection to a larger sense of earth-based spirituality.”
Meyer agreed. “Recent surveys have shown that the largest denomination in this country is made of people described as ‘spiritual but not religious,’ ” he said. “It’s a huge demographic. They want a spiritual and sacred event.”
Churches aren’t the only places marking the occasion. The American Swedish Institute is hosting a winter solstice celebration on Sunday, as is the Center for Performing Arts in south Minneapolis. Also on Sunday, the Black Forest Inn is marking the “darkest day of the year” with a special on its dark beers.
The highlight of the First Universalist celebration is the most subdued part of evening, Vincent said. The first half of the celebration is marked by the lights growing progressively dimmer, while the second half features the lights gaining intensity. In the middle, there’s 12 minutes of complete darkness and silence.
“It’s a really powerful time,” Vincent said. “I’ve heard people weep. Other people have told me that they’ve had a moment of clarity. In our society, just being quiet for 12 minutes is a radical act.”
The Wisdom Ways Center takes a literary tack, basing its celebration around writings. This year’s fest will feature the diaries that Etty Hillesum kept during the German occupation of the Netherlands during World War II.
“We focus on literature of hope and longing,” Lund said.
At Spirit United Church, Moor said, the celebration features drumming by the audience as a dance troupe performs in a candlelit circle.
“We want to honor ancient tradition,” he said. “It’s a celebration of rebirth. Yes, it’s the beginning of winter, but it’s also the start of the sun coming back.”
Meyer takes the physical concept of the solstice and personalizes it.
“My focus in the show is less on the astronomical solstice and more on the solstice of the heart, the inner solstice, the yearning in each of us to be renewed and reborn,” he said. “What happens in nature happens in us. So the solstice is happening in us.”
The fact that he bills himself as a shaman — a person he describes as “a conduit for energy … who can move knowledge, wisdom and healing between the realms of what’s seen and unseen" — can be off-putting to some people, he conceded. But, like the churches, Meyer, who has a seminary degree, insists that he’s not belittling mainstream religion but, rather, offering an alternative.
“Our culture is hungry for a new beautiful, meaningful expression of our relationship with the unseen,” he said.
And for those people “who are dragged there by their spouses and obviously feel uncomfortable,” he throws in entertainment — singers, musicians, dancers and, not to be overlooked, humor.
“I’ve always wanted to make audiences laugh,” said Meyer. “When I started [the winter solstice celebrations], they had lot of theology, but also a lot of laughs. And they still do.”