With all the dark, damp and cool weather it might have been easy to overlook the fact that Sunday was the shortest day of the year. Many of them have seemed short and dark and Sunday may have appeared to be more of the same. But it was the shortest day and, correspondingly, the longest night of the year. It’s a night long noted modern Druids, Pagans and revelers who gather at Stonehenge each year.
There’s another tradition that has sprung up in recent years around the solstice. Small groups of people in disparate locations gather to walk by candlelight through their small part of the world. The earliest celebration I could find was in 2006 in Everett, Washington with their walk along the Snohomish River. They’ve continued the practice yearly since and it happens a number of other places around the world, now. The idea is to push back against the darkness with the community display of light.
In 2009 Charles Finney sent out a link to friends regarding a BBC news article about Lyon’s Fête des Lumières, and a couple of hours later downtown pioneer Robert Loest replied with the variant which would be adopted downtown. The only similar event they found at the time was the event in Golden, Colorado. Robert, his wife, poet Judy Loest, and Charles Finney organized the first candlelight walk in downtown Knoxville to observe the longest day. Charles came up with the name “Strollstice,” a combination of the words stroll and solstice. And the event was born. The News Sentinel story on the event noted that Robert hoped to see it become an annual event.
It has become an annual event but, sadly, he didn’t see it happen. Gone just a couple of months after the first walk, his death was memorialized at the second walk and started a tradition of noting the passing of downtown citizens each year since. This year, the name Rikki Hall was among the first mentioned after his death this spring.
While the event has serious overtones, it isn’t a somber event. It’s a celebration of light, thrusting a little light into the longest night, making a statement that light will return. The first year started with a blessing of the candles by Father Joe Ciccone from Immaculate Conception Church. A walk through downtown followed, with reading and singing of Christmas songs and carols. The pattern has continued, though the content has shifted over time.
Urban Woman, Urban Girl and myself joined for the first time this year. About forty downtown residents and friends gathered at the bell at the southern end of Market Square where Charles Finney spoke a few words about the history of the event, a moment of silence was held and candles were lighted communally. Co-host Laura Still, who gives guided tours of downtown, gave the assembled group a guided tour with history about Christmas celebrations in Knoxville (we were late to the party and celebrated initially with boisterous, drunken revelry involving explosions and gunshots), Knoxville’s first municipal Christmas tree (1914) and more.
The group sang Christmas songs at several spots along Gay Street, at the First Presbyterian Cemetery and outside the YWCA. Quiet conversations by candlelight filled the interludes; a mild winter night made a little warmer by a sense of community. It felt old-fashioned, maybe even a quiet counter-point to the noise and din we’ve come to associate with the season. Ironically, this modern twist seemed perhaps more connected to older traditions than many of our current customs surrounding the day. Sound like something you’d enjoy? Consider joining us next year. Mark your calendar for December 21, 2015.