On the shortest day of the year—as day slips into night and an iciness permeates the air—a bonfire lights up land once inhabited by Native Americans. Men, women, and children walk toward the fire crackling over buckthorn branches, sending warmth to their hands, as they celebrate the winter solstice in Lake Bluff.
Founded in 1981, the nonprofit Lake Bluff Open Lands Association (LBOLA) began the annual tradition about 10 years ago.
“The whole idea is to get a little bit primal, to get in touch with the mystic spirits, and be in tune with nature and the fact that this is a really significant celestial event, and that it’s only going to get brighter,” explains Larry McCotter, president of LBOLA.
The winter solstice marks the day of the year when the path of the sun travels the shortest distance in the Northern Hemisphere. On that day, humans in the Northern Hemisphere living any other place than the equator experience the least amount of daylight and the longest night of the year. Winter solstice occurs this year at 10:28 a.m. December 21. LBOLA’s celebration will be held at about 4 p.m. Sunday, December 17.
Ancient civilizations who followed the movement of the sun and stars celebrated the solstice because it pointed toward spring, a season of rebirth and growth. The first year McCotter and a small group of LBOLA members went out to celebrate the solstice, it was negative 16 degrees.
“It was so cold that year that we couldn’t light a match,” he says.
Not to be deterred, they toasted the solstice with some peppermint schnapps, and it became an annual event. Today, residents flock every year to watch the bonfire, sip hot chocolate, eat s’mores and experience a bit of mysticism for about an hour. Children are invited.
“We look at it positively,” McCotter says. “The days from then are getting longer and longer.”
In the spirit of renewal, this year’s event also celebrates the start of a new project for the nonprofit conservation organization—restoring 5.2 acres along Route 176.
McCotter goes on to explain that the light of the bonfire has several meanings. While it signified growing daylight hours, it’s also a reminder about how fire can help restore natural areas. LBOLA manages 225-acres including a number of conservation easements that preserve land and open space in perpetuity. Volunteers and interns restore and manage land through practices including controlled burns that help remove invasive, non-native plants such as buckthorn.
Some of that buckthorn is used in the annual winter solstice bonfire. At the event, McCotter will talk briefly about LOBLA’s latest endeavor.
“We are proposing to the Village of Lake Bluff and the Lake Bluff Park District that we would like to clear a stretch of buckthorn on the north side of Route 176 between Skokie River and Green Bay Road,” he says. “We are trying to recover the land so we can return it to native prairie and savanna. We need to finalize all the permissions, and we want to raise awareness of the project.”
Even though much of the group’s land management is accomplished by summer interns, volunteers are needed to help make this vision a reality.
Bill Nordeen, a board member who has volunteered managing land on LBOLA preserves for nearly 25 years, said the bonfire “is also a way for us to get together with kindred spirits and celebrate what we’ve accomplished in the last year.”
The group’s latest accomplishment—started more than a year ago and just completed this fall—includes the removal of buckthorn, honeysuckle, and other invasive plants from several acres in the Skokie River Preserve, which runs parallel to the Skokie River.
“We fortunately came up with a team of volunteers and five interns and much to our surprise, we actually pulled it off,” Nordeen says. “We accomplished what we wanted to do.”
During the work, volunteers and interns uncovered two wetlands that will be restored, and discovered otters in the Skokie River that had never been seen there before. The bonfire is free and open to the public. It’s typically held at the beach, but will be held near the Lake Bluff Park District office, 355 W. Washington Avenue. People can park there and follow the signs to the bonfire, which will be held at an open grassy area nearby, close to where the new project will begin.
“We’ll be a couple hundred feet from the Green Bay Trail, at one time a major Native American thoroughfare,” Nordeen says. “Most of us find something incredibly relaxing and connecting with the real world by being around a bonfire in the chill of a fall or winter evening. That’s the draw of it. It’s part of our DNA.”
For more information or to make a donation to LBOLA, visit lbola.org.