In ancient times, there was no New Year’s Eve as we know it today. Instead, the new year was celebrated on December 21, the shortest day of the year known as the winter solstice (“sol” comes from the Latin for sun). “As far back as the third century,” says Tara Miller, program director and naturalist for Plainsboro Preserve, “people operated on a solar year. At the winter solstice, they celebrated beginning anew, starting over. In ancient Rome, the celebrations and feasts sometimes went on for a whole week.”
On Sunday, December 21, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. the Plainsboro Preserve holds it first winter solstice festival with winter walks, crafts, foods, holiday storytelling, a bake sale, and gift shop. “This is a twofold celebration,” says Brian Vernachio, director of the preserve. “It’s a celebration of nature and winter together, and we’re encouraging people to get outside in the wintertime and explore and experience winter.”
“The winter solstice celebrates life and the natural world,” says Miller, who earned her bachelor’s in geology in 1995 and her master’s in education in 1997, both from the University of Pittsburgh. She worked as a naturalist at the Pocono Environmental Education Center and taught in North Carolina before joining the preserve in 2001. “In ancient times, it was traditional for people to bring nature indoors to decorate their homes with natural holly, pinecones, evergreen, and ivy.” She explains that everygreen symbolizes protection, prosperity, and the continuity of life; holly symbolizes good luck; and ivy symbolizes fidelity, protection, marriage, and healing.
At the preserve’s winter solstice festival, which is open to everyone and geared toward families, crafts will tie together natural materials and some of the ancient traditions. Kids can make decorations for the home or yard lide pine cone bird feeders, pine cone creatures such as birds, and luminaries. Adult crafts will include luminaries, wreaths, and pomanders (scented balls made from oranges and cloves).
Volunteers from High School North’s environmental club will set up the stations for the crafts and assist people with the activities. “The environmental club members help out here regularly,” says Vernachio. “They started out making signs to dilineate our endangered species, then the relationship grew, and now they are an integral part of the preserve.” The group helped with the preserve’s opening in June, helped the staff naturalists teach the summer camps, and now help “take care of the critters” and general operations.
Storytelling and story reading at the festival will include Native American stories, European folk tales, and Icelandic tales. The bake sale will offer holiday treats. A birdfeeding workshop will instruct participants how and what to feed birds and a beginning birding workshop will introduce birdwatching.
Natural history walks will also be offered with a naturalist who will explain about winter plants and how animals and birds interact with each other and cope with winter, and point out winter animal tracks. The walks are appropriate for any age.
“The festival is a way for parents to talk about different cultures and ancient times without being any particular religion,” says Miller. Especially with respect to decorating our homes, she adds, “It’s very similar to what we do today but less commercial, more a celebration of life in general.”
Winter Solstice Festival. Plainsboro Preserve, 80 Scotts Corner Road, Plainsboro. 609-897-9400. 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.