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Inside the Outdoors: Solstice bonfires bring hopeful light to the winter darkness

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It seems a great irony that the first day of winter—December 21—marks the point when the amount of sunlight each day will actually begin to increase with the passing of every day. Ironic, because the things that make winter most troublesome to some people lie just ahead. Things like the coldest days of the year, which—if history is any predictor—are likely to arrive during the last week of January. There will be days in February, too, when our furnaces will work overtime, and many a car or truck will need a jump-start from a generous neighbor or a kindly stranger on a cold morning; or, if our luck is bad, a tow to a repair shop for installation of a new battery.

Also ahead, almost certainly, will be days when an Alberta Clipper—or a weather system without a fancy name—will bring us a blizzard, and youngsters will cross their fingers in the hope that its ferocity and duration will put their school on the "closed" list for the next day. Snow plows and snow blowers and snow shovels will be enlisted to deal with it, and someone with a few miles on him is sure to remark that "this is just like those old-fashioned winters."

By any measure of the calendar, not to mention the supporting text in the Farmer's Almanac, winter is about to make us a lot less comfortable. Yet here we are being given hope by the fact that the days will now begin to get longer.

The Druids in ancient Celtic England, about whom we wish we knew more, were unquestionably good astronomers and season-watchers. Their combination seasonal calendar and monument, those gigantic blocks of stones arranged in a circle at Stonehenge, allowed them to calculate the position of the sun at different times of the year. Times like this seasonal transition known by meteorologists as the winter solstice.

The solstice, like other important milestones in the year, has also been an event some celebrate with bonfires and feasting. As I walked out in the 10 p.m. darkness Saturday night to retrieve something from my SUV, and lock the storage garage, I heard voices coming from beyond. As I approached closer, I saw a glow coming from the same direction. It was a gaggle of the neighbors' young people, drawn up in a circle and reclining on lawn chairs around a bonfire. Their faces were reflected in its leaping flames, warmed no doubt to a much more comfortable temperature than the 12 degrees Fahrenheit I was feeling.

These celebrants are regular weekend visitors to their parents' lake home during the summer months, and bonfires "out back" are a regular event. So at first, I was merely impressed by their hardiness. Only later did it occur to me that this was a solstice bonfire, something quite a few moderns kindle as a symbol of the season. One of the major nature centers is the Twin Cities, Belwin, holds a celebration on this shortest day of the year, with music, trail hikes, hot refreshments, "a roaring bonfire," and a performance by local musical theater troupe.

The celebration of the winter solstice pre-dates our celebration of Christmas, which—when you think about it—stands to reason, since these seasonal changes have been occurring from time immemorial, pre-dating the rise of Christendom. Some may be troubled by the proximity of what they consider a "pagan" celebration with the celebration of the birth of Christ. But they celebrate two different things, one said to bring moral light to a dark world, the other bringing temporal firelight to the darkest day of the year.

I find the arrival of that longest night and shortest day reassuring and a cause for optimism. The landscape here on the "frozen tundra" of a Minnesota winter may be stark in appearance, depleted in its complement of wild creatures after the biologically programmed ones have migrated to warmer latitudes, and to survive and even enjoy it we must take extreme measures in insulating ourselves against its bitterness.

But to anyone who has been through the cycle of the seasons even a few times, the knowledge that with each passing day there will be more daylight is—indeed—a cause for optimism. Optimism that the things we enjoy in more hospitable times are getting closer with every sunrise. Things like casting bass lures to shoreline bulrushes, or trolling baits for waiting walleyes from a boat rhythmically bobbing on the swells. Or hunting for morels; or watching the return of favorite songbirds or lacing on hiking boots or mounting a mountain bike.

In the meantime, there are a lot of ways to make the frigid season enjoyable, and to be reminded that "time flies when you're having a good time." The ice fishing shelters, the anglers pulling their portables across the ice on sleds and the skaters on the frozen lake beyond our windows are re-discovering that firsthand. The first snowmobiles are being seen circling the lake's perimeter. When more snow arrives there will be cross-country skiing. Or, not too many miles away, man-made snow is enabling thrilling downhill ski runs.

Why shouldn't there be optimism, even as e plunge into the heart of a Minnesota winter?