‘Have you been there with a lantern?’: how Australians embrace the winter solstice

·5 min read

Many Australians have an awkward relationship with winter. Yuletide nostalgia, inherited from European settlers, prompts us to do strange things, like spray fake snow on our windows in high summer.

Since at least 1980, “Christmas in July” has been offered to Australians as an antidote to this climatic incongruity, but outside of the festival that started it – Yulefest in the Blue Mountains, which is still an annual event – its folly has proved too much for many to overcome. Somehow, resigning ourselves to the absurdity of plum pudding in front of the aircon seems less naff.

Lately though, alternatives have emerged. From neo-pagan family gatherings to city-funded festivals, the winter solstice is becoming a thing.

Nicole Lenoir-Jourdan, a PHD candidate who has spent more than two decades working in travel communications, puts some of the solstice’s newfound popularity down to the rise of “mysticore” – an increased interest in the arcane, from witchcraft to astrology, that coincided with the Trump-era.

“It’s the season of the witch,” Lenoir-Jourdan says, “and they’re coming out of the broom closet.” She’s not wrong. #Witchtok has amassed over 14.7bn (yes, billion) views on TikTok. It doesn’t surprise her. Witches, she says, “have always been canny business people”.

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But the solstice is physical as well as mystical. It will take place at 03:32 UTC (universal time) on 21 June – that’s Monday afternoon on Australia’s east coast. At that moment the earth’s southern pole will, for an instant, tilt its farthest from the sun, giving the southern hemisphere its longest night and heralding the new solar year and brighter days ahead.

The biannual astronomical event has captivated humans for millennia: monuments like Stonehenge, Newgrange and stone formations in eastern Australia tell us that humans have been tracking the solstices since at least late neolithic times. Cultures from the ancient Incas to China today have ritualised winter solstices, celebrating light’s victory over darkness.

This year, pandemic willing, there will be at least 120 solstice-themed events across Australia, from Cairns to Coogee in Western Australia. Lantern walks, bonfires and even naked swims have been proliferating for years, emerging from alternative communities out into the mainstream. In 2021 you can mark the occasion with anything from Deep House yoga sessions to witchy film screenings, or even pie and mash at the MG auto club. It seems everyone is under the solstice spell.

After a long year of uncertainty, Lenoir-Jourdan thinks that as a typically open-minded (and commercial) society, Australians will jump at diversions of any sort. Maybe you have already been to a particular venue. “But have you been there with a lantern?” she asks. She suggests novelty value is enough to get many Australians out of the house, adding that the solstice already has one very successful case study: Dark Mofo.

A pioneer in the June solstice game, Dark Mofo was born in Hobart in 2013. The festival’s creative director Leigh Carmichael says it “was conceived as a winter solstice festival … interested in all ancient mythologies and cultural traditions”.

In 2019 it netted more than $4m in ticket sales by more than 100,000 visitors, so it is little wonder other municipalities and businesses are increasingly inclined to invoke the solstice spirit – or at least the word – in attempts to lure us out into the cold.

This year, the inaugural Sydney Solstice, an entertainment and arts festival, offered locals a wild assortment of solstice revelry – from midnight yum-cha, Aboriginal stargazing cruises on the harbour, vaudevillian variety shows, to the comedic stylings of Paul Fenech, although it ends on 20 June – before the solstice takes place.

It’s joyful at an otherwise fairly miserable time of the year

Leigh Carmichael

In cities as far north as Brisbane, with an average winter temperature of 22C, Australians have been bemused but enthused about the igloos and ice rinks in the form of “winter villages” popping up in more and more cities each year.

Despite its commercial appeal, Carmichael says the winter solstice is “a celebration of life during the darkest period, and whether we notice or not, we are intrinsically linked to the ebb and flow of the seasons, and for whatever reason the turning point seems to resonate deeply within us”.

A sense of primordial longing drew Katherine Knott, of Chewton in Victoria, to reconnect with winter’s depths. She has celebrated the winter solstice with her family for the past five years. They draw on various pagan traditions including yule to welcome the “return of the light”. Each year extended family gathers to celebrate with a decorated tree, gifts and a roast dinner – so far, so Christmas – but the solstice taps into a different spiritual urge. Like Carmichael, Knott says whether we are aware of it or not, we are always cycling, and these hormonal, lunar and seasonal transitions affect us all.

The annual winter solstice nude swim in Lake Burley Griffin in Canberra on 21 June 2019.
The annual winter solstice nude swim in Lake Burley Griffin in Canberra on 21 June 2019. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

Knott likens the period of winter to menstruation, a time that should be set aside for quiet reflection and recharging. It’s a time, she says, when we need to “rely on inner flame to keep us warm”.

For Mullumbimby native and Britannia actress Liana Cornell, solstice celebrations have been a feature of family life since childhood. Mulled wine, decorations and feasting stand alongside more spiritual practices that Cornell says help her connect to her Celtic heritage. She thinks it is “important to go deeper and understand the roots of this celebration and your connections to it”.

Cornell believes that looking into your ancestral traditions while honouring the lands on which you are observing the solstice “allows us to intuitively create rituals which speak more personally to us”.

Like any good cause for celebration though, the winter solstice leaves room for more hedonistic delights. Carmichael says that while the symbolism of Dark Mofo is significant to many who attend, others revel simply in “the opportunity to dance and feast in winter”.

“Either way,” he says, “it’s joyful, at an otherwise fairly miserable time of the year.” Pass the mulled wine.

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