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Have a Halcyon Solstice
    by John Cech


The Winter Solstice occurs later this week. It's the shortest day of the year, and it takes place during what are called the Halcyon days, the week before and after the Sosltice. These days are named after a bird, a kind of Kingfisher, that was said to have the ability to calm the stormy seas so that it could build its nest on the smooth water.

The Solstice itself is the subject of a new children's book, The Shortest Day, by Wendy Pfeffer, with illustrations by Jesse Reisch. In her poetic text, Pfeffer tells the story of this moment in time, when the northern part of the earth tilts furthest from the sun. The word, "solstice," itself comes from the latin words for "sun" and "stop," sol- sistere, the time when the sun stops. Not only is the solstice an astronomical phenomenon, but also a mythical one, as Pfeffer explains. The shortest day led to rituals around the world that were meant to encourage the return of the sun, and with it light, warmth, growth, crops, and ultimately life itself.

The ancient Chinese measured the length of the sun's shadow to determine this day: the Mayans and Aztecs built structures -- part temple, part astrological observatory, that were keyed to the sun at this and other times in the calendar year. The Romans commemorated the Solstice with gifts of evergreen boughs and wreaths, and with mistletoe, symbolic of an enduring life force and the return of vegetation in the spring. A thousand years ago, Peffer reminds us, Druids in England "decorated oak trees with golden apples and candles to represent harvest and light." Sweden celebrates the feast of St. Lucia, " Pfeffer writes, with songs and gifts of food to family and friends. On this day, Swedish girls wore "crowns of evergreens and candles" and became the emissaries of light in a darkened world.

This lovely book for younger children is like those candles on Swedish children's diadems. Pfeffer and Reisch take the reader back, gently, to the frozen edges of prehistory and forward into a profound recognition of the human hopes that connect a distant past to our own present, to our universal need for warmth and light. This is book is like that halcyon bird; through its images and words, it settles the stormy seas,

Copyright 2004 John Cech

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"Recess!" is a co-production of the University of Florida's Center for Children's Literature and Culture and WUFT-FM, "Classic 89."