Lantern Festival lights up darkest night of the year

Mandala at the Roundhouse. Photo courtesy of Secret Lantern Society

On the darkest night of the year, Vancouver’s annual Winter Solstice Lantern Festival brings beauty and creativity to five neighbourhoods in anticipation of the sun’s return and longer daylight hours.

In the northern hemisphere, the winter solstice is the time when the Tropic of Cancer is farthest away from the sun, marking the shortest day of the year, usually around Dec. 21.

Naomi Singer, artistic director of the Secret Lantern Society, which produces the festival, says many people are affected by the darkness of the season, but every day after the solstice brings more sunlight and cause for celebration.

Performers under the Tree of LIfe at the Roundhouse.

From ancient to modern times, every culture has had its own version of winter solstice celebrations. In Persia, fires were burned as a symbolic act of the sun’s defeat over darkness. The Romans dedicated this time of year to the god of seedtime, Saturn, and exchanged gifts to commemorate the event. It’s argued that even present-day Christmas has roots in these pagan traditions.

“Many cultures celebrate the winter solstice. It’s actually a physical relationship of our planet to the sun,” Singer explains.

Singer adds that ancient cultures revered this moment because it symbolized the return of the sun, meaning food would grow again, and animals would return.

“It’s a very essential, primal kind of celebration,” she says.

The festival started in 1993, when the parks board called for a local arts community project. Singer says that she wanted to do a festival that would bring many people together and, since the winter solstice is universally celebrated, it would do just that.

The celebrations will take place in the East Side, Yaletown, Granville Island, Southeast False Creek and Chinatown neighbourhoods. Each location, except the East Side, will begin with a procession of attendees and their lanterns, and then end at a designated community centre.

The East Side has partnered with the In the House Festival to start things off with intimate concerts inside select homes, follow with the procession and culminate at Britannia Community Centre.

The Labyrinth of Light at the Roundhouse. Photo courtesy of Secret Lantern Society

One of the highlights of the festival is the Labyrinth of Light, which is held at the Roundhouse and Britannia community centres. Helmut Jaskolski, author of the book Labyrinth: Symbol of Fear, Rebirth and Liberation, suggests that the concept of the labyrinth stems from the Greek myth of Theseus and Ariadne, but it shows up in other places as well. It has been found in an ancient Egyptian seal, cathedrals and art.

Roy Liu, special events coordinator at the Roundhouse Community Centre in Yaletown, says that the candles are set up in a specific pathway to form the labyrinth. He emphasizes that it’s a spiritual experience where people can meditate while walking through the maze. This year people can avoid lineups and book their tickets online.

At Southeast False Creek, event highlights include a shadow puppet show, stilt walkers and the Legion of Flying Monkeys Orchestra, where the musicians play instruments made out of wood and plants carved by artist David Gowman.

On Granville Island, the Vancouver Morris Men, an English Morris dance group, will be performing, as well as traditional African dancer, Jacky Essombe.

In Chinatown, people can celebrate the Chinese winter solstice, dong zhi, which marks the arrival of the yang (light) energy. Visitors can also walk through lantern-filled Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Park.

Singer says everyone has their own personal experience of the festival and the labyrinth but, for her, the goal was to bring a sense of beauty to the community.

“I want to give people a chance to express creativity and to experience beauty and to gather together in celebration,” Singer says.

The Winter Solstice Lantern Festival is happening Friday, Dec. 21, 6 p.m.–10 p.m. Donations encouraged.