On most evenings, a drive past Lucy Winton Bell Athletic Fields means a drive through the peaceful darkness of Hudson Road. However, on one night of the year there is an unmistakable light that, moving past the fields, you just can’t miss: the bright glow of Belwin’s annual Winter Solstice Bonfire. Katie Bloome, Belwin’s Executive Director, has called this event “the biggest bonfire you’ll ever see!” and it’s easy to understand why.

Made up of downed and damaged trees cleared by SavATree, the woodpile for the bonfire is titanic. And on December 20th, the cleared trees will transform into a great column of flame, warming all who have gathered together at Belwin to celebrate the winter solstice. 

But what exactly is the winter solstice? And how does Belwin celebrate it?

People gathered around bonfire
The Winter Solstice Bonfire in 2021. Photo by Nancy Klinger.

History of the Solstice 

The winter solstice occurs each year when the northern pole is at its furthest point from the sun. It marks the darkest and shortest day of the year. Observances of the winter solstice can be traced back to Neolithic times. There have been recorded instances of solstice celebrations in countries throughout the world including India, Iran, Germany, and many others.

The winter solstice has a long history in America as well. In an article about solstice traditions in Smithsonian Magazine, an Ojibwe person of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe remarked that, “Traditional storytelling is reserved for the winter months for many tribes. This was a practical choice…It was in the winter, with the long dark evenings, the snow and wind blowing outside, that telling stories was a way to entertain and teach the children.”

People in front of large fire
The fire gets enormous at the Winter Solstice Bonfire. Photo by Nancy Klinger.

Storytelling around the Fire

Since the event’s inception, program director Susan Haugh has made an effort to pay homage to longstanding solstice traditions by highlighting storytelling and traditional music from different cultures. Past events have included Ikidowin Youth Theater Acting Ensemble and Impossible Salt.

This year’s event will feature a new set of performers. At 7:00 pm, the Imniza Ska Dakota Drum Group will kick off the celebration with welcoming songs. Primarily made up of families, the group includes members from tribes in Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota.

Next Pete McCauley and Tim Cheesebrow of Minneapolis-based The Mac and Cheese Band will perform Irish, Celtic, and American traditional music and storytelling. Their specialty is to “bring old tunes to life and have a great time doing it.”

The two sets of musicians will bring music and life to the solstice. Set against the towering flames, they are certain to mark a celebration guests won’t soon forget. 

Trail in the snow, lit by torches
Guided hikes will be available for guests. Photo by Nancy Klinger

Other Fun Activities

Alongside the musical guests, this event offers visitors plenty of opportunities to get out and enjoy the quiet majesty of a winter’s evening outdoors. Night hikes guided by Belwin naturalists will be available to guests starting every half hour at 6:15 pm. The first of these hikes will be specifically for families with children under the age of 5. Warm drinks will also be available inside a nearby warming tent. The Labyrinth at Tallgrass Trails will also be lit with solar lights for guests who’d like a reflective area in which to consider the coming year.

The fire itself is a source of interest as well. Most of the trees cleared by SavATree for the bonfire are ash trees, and clearing them helps eradicate emerald ash borer eggs, which can damage ecosystems in the region. In addition, the timing of the bonfire is ideal, as the surrounding snow reduces the risk of the fire jumping.

To learn more, visit belwin.org/events.

We hope to see you there!

No dogs are allowed at the event. There will be a $10 entrance fee per car. We suggest all guests who wish to sit bring a chair and that everyone dresses for the weather.

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Afton, MN 55001
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