Several snowy winters ago my parents, my young son and I drove up to the mountains to ski for a few days just before Christmas. It was a merry time filled with days on the slopes and fireside chats after dinner over hot chocolate. It was pretty much the picture postcard it sounds like. Nearing Christmas, on the Winter Solstice, we ended the holiday a few hours earlier than planned on account of a storm that was about to blow in. The car was packed, blue skies above, all was well as we set off. We took the scenic back roads, one of my most favorite drives in the world, one that includes two majestic mountain passes and high altitude plains that have never looked the same twice. Most times I stop enroute in the village of Florissant to visit my pal Celinda, a Native America medicine woman. She lives in the middle of a beautiful, forest encircled meadow in a large pink Victorian home that boasts one of Kit Carson’s tiny winter log cabins out back. I called ahead asking if we could stop in for a quick visit and with her usual generosity, Celinda gave the go ahead, instructing us to “Just come on in” when we arrived. What she didn’t mention is that there would be ceremony going on in her home that night for the Winter Solstice.
As we barreled along singing carols through the mountain passes down to Florissant, we noticed a few puffy clouds starting to form, then a flurry. Radio weather reports grew alarming and we agreed we’d make only the briefest of stops in order to make the final thirty minutes home in safety. We arrived and walked on in as we’d been instructed to do only to see a sea of shoes at her entry and a large circle of people seated on her living room floor. Uh oh. Ceremony and once in the room there was no way out. We took our shoes off and joined the circle.
Songs ensued, chants and prayers. My parents well into their 80’s had always had a keen appreciation for the new, so they went easily with the flow. My eight year old, flexible by nature, was used by then to new settings even if he did turn lime green after a puff on the pipe that was being passed around the circle. As the wind began to howl outside, we were guided into a period of meditative silence after which each participant shared what they’d seen in their meditation. This was quite intimidating as speakers before us had had glorious visions. One had even seen a white bull. All I had done was entertain flights of fancy about a disastrous drive home in the now nearly cacophonous blizzard. Mom spoke. Aided perhaps by the few shots of whiskey she’d been enjoying in the back seat on the drive thus far she waxed poetical about her time in Cuba during the 50’s. How this tied into the Winter Solstice Ceremony remains a mystery. Dad was next. Being the oldest member in the circle everyone looked to him with great reverence. He did not disappoint. He said he had thought of his Mother in the silence and how grateful he remained for her loving nature. This met with a round of approving “Ho’s”, a sign of respect and acknowledgment. Lucius too did well speaking of how much he enjoyed the beauty of winter mountains. I muttered something hastily thinking surely now we could make an exit.
Nope. It was time to eat and we had to stay. Everyone, except us had brought a delicious dish to share. Jolly conversation ensued as each guest filled their plates high, the vittles a promise of bounty in the heart of darkness. Strategizing on how we could eat and run we soon learned we could not have a bite until the ancestors had been fed. What this meant exactly became clear when Dad was told that as he was the eldest, he would have the honor of performing this ceremony. This entailed his bundling up, being escorted by a member of the tribe out into the cold with a specially prepared plate and depositing the food at the base of an ancient tree. As the door opened and a whoosh of snow blew in I wondered if we’d ever see my ever willing Dad again. We stood in silence as the ritual outdoors was performed. I was not prepared exactly for the image of the abominable snowman that came back through the door for it was complete with a montage of windblown food now securely plastered to Dad’s snow encrusted face and chest. Apparently the ancestors would have to go hungry that Solstice.
We gulped our food, hugs all around and bolted to our car. Quick scrape and off we set. It took longer than usual but we did make it home safely, blizzard not withstanding.
I’m the eldest now and the mantle of my elders rests on my shoulders…some days more easily than others. I hear my parent’s merry voices when I drive those passes no matter what the season and on winter solstice nights I find a tree under which to place something from my bounty in the heart of darkness.