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Solstice party

12/13/03 12:00AM By Henry Homeyer
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(Host) This year commentator Henry Homeyer has decided to celebrate the season with a Winter Solstice Party.

(Homeyer) As the days get shorter and the nights colder, many of us find our spirits lagging a bit, myself included. A friend of ours from the Ural mountains of Russia told me about a celebration that occurs in her village on the night of the winter solstice. It sounds like a real pick-me-up, so this year I'd like to start my own tradition.

The solstice occurs on the night of December 21. Anna tells me she and her friends decorate a living tree outdoors, usually a spruce, then build a bonfire which they light after dark. They hang a kettle from a tripod over the fire to keep water hot for herbal tea. And they always cook some meat on the fire and share a light meal. Games are organized for the children, and later the adults share a little schnapps.

Here's my plan: on Saturday, the 20th, we'll invite some children to come decorate the tree. As in Russia, we'll make our own decorations. Anna makes ornaments of colored water that she puts in molds and freezes outdoors. She puts a string into each one, so the children can hang them on the tree.

I'll try to round up some old jello molds, but lacking those, I'll use small plastic containers. And just for fun we'll make some popcicles so the kids can eat them off the tree if they wish.

When I was a boy we always made garlands of popcorn and cranberries for the tree, and this seems like a natural for the outdoor tree. Eventually the birds will find them, I suppose, so they can share in the feast, too.

And of course ginger bread cookies would be fun to to put on this tree. We'll bake them in advance, and let the children decorate them with colored sugar frosting. Hopefully the weather will cooperate, as rain would do them in.

The tree we'll decorate is a young 'Dr. Merrill' magnolia that grows in the middle of the back lawn. About 10 feet tall, it's covered right now with flower buds for next spring's display. The buds are decorative in their own right, though more subtle than cranberries and popcorn. They're an inch or more in length, and as fuzzy as caterpillars.

I can't carry a tune or play an instrument, but I'll invite some people that can. Singing outdoors on the shortest night of the year seems like a good way to chase away the doldrums and celebrate the advent of longer days.

Hopefully the fire will warm not only our hands, but our hearts, because even though I'm firmly entrenched in the computer age, fires hold a primal attraction for me. My roots, like those of our magnolia, go deep.

This is the gardening guy, Henry Homeyer, in Cornish Flat, NH.

Henry Homeyer is a gardening writer and columnist. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.
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