Celebrating the Solstice with Mama Henes

"Winter begins in 20 minutes," said "Mama" Donna Henes to a curious onlooker as she set up a blessing circle in the middle of Bowling Green in Manhattan.

The self-described urban shaman was preparing for her 35th annual solstice celebration, which glass-is-half-empty types describe as the "shortest day of the year." Henes prefers to look at it this way: "It gets lighter from this point on, folks."

Eager to avoid the arrest of celebrants for trespassing that marred the holiday for her in 1998, Henes is wearing her permit from the Parks Department around her neck...

This prompts a lively, pre-blessing discussion between participants of why the city requires public gathering permits in the first place. Dark theories pertaining to the arrests at the 2004 Republican National Convention are mentioned, but participant Ann Eagan is "appalled" that anyone would be scared off by those. "Just last week, they revealed they had to throw most of those cases out," said Eagan.

Regardless, Henes seemed happy enough to pay the $25 permit to avoid any trouble this year.

The ceremony began with a Dick-Clark-style countdown to 12:47 PM, the actual moment of the winter solstice, when the Earth's axial tilt is farthest away from the sun.

Henes marked the moment by lighting a flare and blessing everyone with its smoke. She then moved on to giving everyone a spritz from a bottle of interfaith holy water -- a mixture of waters from the River Ganges in India, the River Jordan in Jerusalem, the Zam Zam well in Mecca, and other holy sites whose affiliates might be displeased to see their precious fluids co-mingled with those of other religions in a spray bottle.

Noticeably absent from the pagan holiday celebration was the city's newly elected pagan city councilman -- or for that matter, any men at all. All those assembled around the circle were women.

A lyric sheet was passed around for "pagan carols," altered from the originals in ways sure to make sure the War on Christmas crowd want to take up witchburning again. Some highlights:

God rest ye merry paganfolk! Let nothing you dismay!
Remember that the sun returns upon the Solstice day

On the fifth day of solstice, my true love gave to me
Five pentagrams
Four elements
Three goddesses
Two magic spells
And a druid in an oak tree

And especially:

Christians roasting on an open fire
Incense wafting up your nose
Skyclad Witches leaping higher and higher
And dykes dressed up like buffaloes

Henes says she's happy to say goodbye to 2009, which for her -- as for most small business owners -- largely sucked. But she is "interested to see what is going to happen leading up to 2012."

Does she foresee a Roland Emmerich style end of the world that year?

"No, not at all," she says, laughing. "But I do see an end to systems that aren't working, and a birth of new systems that do work."

Maybe those systems will get an overhaul, if the prayers of some of the solstice participants are answered. Henes passed out sage during the ceremony, and asked people to drop it into a small fire in the middle of the circle, while offering a blessing to the world. The celebrants asked for universal health care, climate cooling, less war, and better schools. And who knows? Maybe somewhere in Queens, the pagan who will soon join the city council burnt his own sage and made his own wishes.

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