Since ancient times, the icy gloom of the early winter season has inspired a tradition of Solstice festivals - uplifting celebrations that help dispel the darkness, and beckon the warmth and light of the spring-to-come.
Every year, these seasonal rhythms are highlighted with song and spectacle at the Solstice Celebration in the grand Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York, under the unique musical guidance of the Paul Winter Consort.
In the soaring gothic nave of the Cathedral -- one of the largest churches in the world -- about 3,500 people train their eyes and ears on a darkened central stage, waiting for the first notes from veteran jazzman Paul Winter's soprano saxophone to launch the 2005 Winter Solstice Celebration.
Paul Winter believes that most of the holiday customs at this time of year -- from Christmas trees to Hanukah candles -- are rooted in Solstice observances. "The tradition of bringing green living plants into the house is to honor the perpetual life force," he says, referring to Christmas, "and to light candles and fires [as in the Jewish custom of Hanukah] is to beseech the sun to come back." According to Mr. Winter, mistletoe was is originally a symbol of forgiveness. The golden berries of the mistletoe were called 'the golden apples of the sun' and symbolized the perpetuation of the sun. "These are all poignant at this time of the year," he adds, "when it's so cold and dark that we feel a deeper need to reach out to each other."
Dance is an integral part of the night's performance. The rhythms of the sun and earth were evoked this year by a festively costumed African American dance troupe from nearby Harlem… and then by the chants from a visiting Russian choir.
"Music has a universal dimension to it," says Paul Winter. "It carries up to a perspective that kind of over-arches the differences we have, and also the worries and concerns and the trivialities, it enables us to make room for the immensities."
The musical dialogue between the recorded calls of humpback whales and members of Paul Winter's band is a perennial favorite of Solstice celebration fans. It's called "The Belly of the Whale" - a reference to the biblical story of Jonah - and symbolizes the endurance one goes through during the longest night, before the sun returns.
"For me many of the sounds of nature are musical because they resonate with the soul of life. That's my definition of the music I care about most," says Mr. Winter.
After performances on the oboe and the cello, some Brazilian folksongs, and other offerings that evoke this time in nature's calendar, a 'solstice tree' was wheeled onstage. Made up entirely of metal cymbals and gongs and other instruments, its spiral shape echoed the form of DNA, galaxies, seashells, and of course, Christmas trees.
Then came the evening's climax. Cables lifted a giant sphere representing the earth high above the crowd, and the song "Return of the Sun" filled the air.
As the music soared through the cathedral rafters, a huge golden gong rose dramatically into the air. It spread waves of sound throughout the Cathedral, just as the sun will spread rays of light and warmth, on its lengthening daily journey across the northern sky.