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Bringing in the light 

Some groups in Rochester are incorporating the winter solstice into their holiday traditions

Beyond the traditional presents, decorations, trees, and dinner plans, there is another holiday practice that is capturing the attention of some Rochester groups. Supplementing the traditional holidays, or even sometimes foregoing these activities and replacing them, a growing number of people are celebrating the winter solstice.

"We're not just getting our own folks that are attending worship at this service," says Erin Julian, the executive assistant of the First Unitarian Church of Rochester, which began holding winter solstice ceremonies in 2013. "They're bringing their friends to check it out."

The December winter solstice, as an astronomical event, marks when the Northern Hemisphere is exposed to sunlight for the shortest amount of time due to the Earth's tilt. (The Southern Hemisphere marks its winter solstice in June.) The event signifies the seasonal shift of winter to summer and the longer days and shorter nights to come. This year, the winter solstice falls on Tuesday, December 22, the first day of winter.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY DAVE BURNET

"Winter Solstice is a time to pause, with the restraints of winter, to perceive the sense of our future growth," Mary Kate Hagan writes in "Winter Solstice Celebration," an article published in The Furrow, a journal for the contemporary church.

"It is an invitation to align ourselves with the tuning of the seasons and the natural world, experiencing ourselves as beings woven into the sacred web of life, acknowledging the mystery of the Divine creates presence pulsating through all."

Two years ago, First Unitarian held its first service "to celebrate the winter solstice which is preparing to welcome light as we head into spring," Julian says. "We started completely in the dark, which is what solstice is, and then gradually created more light throughout the service."

The church (220 South Winton Road) will host this year's solstice ceremony on Saturday, December 19, with three services: 4:30 p.m., 7 p.m., and 9:30 p.m. A yoga service will be held the following morning, at 10 a.m.

click to enlarge First Unitarian Church Senior Minister Kaaren Anderson leads a "howl" during the 2014 winter - solstice celebration. - PHOTO BY DAVE BURNET
  • First Unitarian Church Senior Minister Kaaren Anderson leads a "howl" during the 2014 wintersolstice celebration.

During the service, the congregation participates in activities, music, and meditation, all centered around the idea of welcoming in the light both physically and spiritually.

One activity that seems to resonate with the congregation is an act of diminishing stressors or bad memories. "On each seat in the sanctuary, everyone was given a piece of flash paper," Julian says. "On the flash paper we were asked to write down what it is that we want to leave behind as we welcome the light."

Sections of the congregation are then asked to come up and throw their pieces of paper into the fire pit that was in the center of the sanctuary.

"At that point they actually just flared right up," Julian says. "It was really beautiful."

Maryellen Meleca, a Unitarian Universalist who has been a member of the church for five years, says that moment was one she would remember, too.To Meleca, the service is an emotional, unforgettable, and impactful experience that she looks forward to it each year.

"It's really meaningful to share that with a group of people," to realize we all have worries or stressors, Meleca says. "We all have these things and we can brighten our world together and share the lightness and welcome back the light on multiple different levels."

click to enlarge The celebration of the winter solstice is focused on welcoming the light, so candles and flame are important part, as seen here from the First Unitarian Church's ceremony. - PHOTO BY DAVE BURNET
  • The celebration of the winter solstice is focused on welcoming the light, so candles and flame are important part, as seen here from the First Unitarian Church's ceremony.

Although small in numbers — about 200,000 Universalists in the United States — the First Unitarian Church in Rochester is a leader of the religious community.

"The First Unitarian here in Rochester: we're the third largest Unitarian church in the country. We're often looked up to by the denomination," Julian says. "That's an honor for us."

Many pagan groups also incorporate the solstice into their practices.

"Like most religions, we have a ceremony and then we eat afterwards," says Thomas De Fiore-Schmidt, the High Priest of the Coven of Sangha-Sho.

Fiore-Schmidt leads a Wiccan group in Rochester that meets at his personal home in Irondequoit. "Our religion is based on the changing of the seasons," he says. "Were entering the lighter half of the year where you gain daylight ... it's the promise of the goddess and the sun will come back and warm us again."

Fiore-Schmidt says he celebrates with his coven like many other religions by gift giving and spending time together. In the middle of a ritual, Fiore-Schmidt says, there is a lesson just like most other religious traditions. However there is a lot of freedom in a smaller practice religion like Wicca — Fiore-Schmidt's coven has an inner circle of 12 members, and 13 members in its outer circle, which according to him, is a sizeable coven.

"In Wicca, there's no centralized church, like Catholicism has the Vatican. There is no one place or one person."

click to enlarge PHOTO BY DAVE BURNET

Fiore-Schmidt says he is not surprised to hear when someone is celebrating the solstice, and see many people celebrating in addition to their traditional holiday celebrations. "I don't know if Wicca or paganism is growing as quickly as I hoped, but I think people are not following the original tradition as strongly as they used to," he says.

Meleca says she has been hooked since she first heard of the Unitarian church's celebration. "It's hard to actually capture the solstice celebration in words that really describe it fully," she says. "It's an experience on a lot of different levels."

Meleca isn't abnormal either. Julian says that the numbers at the solstice services have nearly tripled since 2013, demanding more attention and planning.

The sanctuary at the First Unitarian Church of Rochester holds about 350 people. For the services in the past, the church was at standing room only. In 2014, two separate services were hosted in an attempt to make more room and accessibility for people. They were still at standing room only in each service.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY DAVE BURNET

The church will now host three services to accommodate those wishing to participate in the service, and Julian says the hype is only growing. Many of the participants of the church are eager for the next solstice celebration.

"We had all this wonderful positive buzz to the point where six to nine months after that service, people we're still saying, oh my God that's so amazing, I can't wait until the next one."

For more information about First Unitarian's solstice celebration, call 271-9070 or email

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