At Solstice Tribute, Shorter Than the Day is Long
December 21, 2008
by Cara Buckley
Sunday morning was a nasty time to be out and about in New York, with cold rain falling hard, but the predawn hours were worse. Sleet was blowing at just the right angle to find its way into tightly drawn hoods and mittens, and yet 17 people got out of bed anyway, all with the same thought: “I shall go stand in the middle of an intersection in Brooklyn and bang on a drum.”
The occasion was the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. It was a moment of great importance to ancient pagans, and to a set of spiritually inclined people intent on connecting with Mother Earth through the asphalt of New York. Sunday’s ceremony in Brooklyn was convened at Grand Army Plaza, at the mouth of Prospect Park. It was
led by Donna Henes, also known as Mama Donna, a self-styled urban shaman and provider of “ritual services” that include weddings, funerals, house and office blessings and energy cleansings.
Ms. Henes sent out word about Sunday’s gathering through her e-mail list and Craigslist. She has led solstice celebrations throughout the city for the past 34 years, but this year’s solstice “moment” was early — 7:04 a.m. — and the weather was inclement, so she chose Grand Army Plaza because it was close to her apartment in Prospect Heights. “It was so difficult with the time and weather to be schlepping the stuff somewhere else,” Ms. Henes said.
The stuff in question included a small cast-iron pot, coals, sweet grass and other herbs, drums, maracas, a roadside flare, a clock and long bolts of red fabric, which Ms. Henes twisted and shaped into a large “magic circle” that she lay on the ground a hundred feet or so from the plaza’s soaring arch.
Ms. Henes set the pot inside the circle, along with the clock and the flare. She has been using flares at her solstice ceremonies since 1998, the year that she and nearly three dozen fellow celebrators were hauled to a police station on Staten Island and cited for
trespassing after officers spotted their bonfire on South Beach.
The weather being what it was on Sunday, there were early concerns that no one would show. Yet, by 6:35 a.m., with the sky still dark and snow pelting down, the attendee count had grown to five. Over the next 20 minutes, a dozen more people arrived, all bundled up. They included Liz Tortolani and Kunji Rey, who are roommates and massage
therapists and both 32; Deni DeYonker, a 54-year-old business owner wearing a pair of felt antlers; and three women from Staten Island, two of whom were draped in sweeping hooded cloaks. “We are all priestesses from a goddess temple on Staten Island,” one of the women, Adrienne Cumberbatch, said.
Ms. Henes called everyone into the circle at 6:55 a.m. There were 16 women and one man, Ben Shupp, 39, who teaches English as a Second Language and is Ms. Henes’s neighbor. They were all wearing bright orange circular stickers that Ms. Henes had stuck, bindilike, in the middle of their foreheads to symbolize the coming sun.
“The sun thanks you because it definitely wants to come back,” Ms. Henes said. “We are in the darkest nine minutes of the year.” She anointed everyone’s foreheads with oil and asked them to face outward and to yell and let all their bad energy out. The hollers were muffled by the patter of sleet and the few cars that happened to be moving past, their wheels crunching through salt and ice.
The sky was overcast but brightening, and the holiday tree under the plaza’s arch blinked off. At 7:04, Ms. Henes tried to light the flare, but it was damp and uncooperative. A barbecue lighter proved similarly ineffective. A huddle formed around the stubborn flare, and match after match was lighted in vain, as the other participants swayed and began singing snippets of songs about sun and light. (“Here Comes the Sun,” “This Little Light of Mine”). One of the participants speculated that her match might have failed because she was born under an air sign.
But then, the flare finally ignited, and Ms. Henes handed out drums and maracas,
which people banged and shook as they chanted, “Reverence, reverence, reverence.” This went on for 20 more minutes or so, as the drums and chants grew loud then soft then loud again and finally fell quiet, at 7:34 a.m. Everyone held hands for a moment
and grinned at one another. The circle dispersed, the stickers were peeled from foreheads, and people headed off in all directions through the icy rain, another solstice behind them.