As the solstice arrives Wednesday, Annapolis is lighted for joy

Published 12/20/2022 6:00 a.m. EST, Updated 12/23/2022 5:21 p.m. EST

Holiday lights have been a tradition in Annapolis since 1913. Maryland Avenue is one of several neighborhoods that lights the streets.

Standing at our front door, we watched the lights parade pass by with laughter, bells and whistles.

No, not that light parade. The Eastport Yacht Club Lights Parade is an annual event that draws thousands to the Annapolis waterfront. It ranked sixth in a national poll on the best holiday parades this year.

This was a neighborhood thing, organized by a family down the street for their young kids and others. Two-wheelers, trikes, golf carts and at least one Power Wheels Barbie Dream Camper were decorated with strings of holiday lights.

The procession cruised down our long, dark street and headed toward the community beach as my wife and I stood there marveling at the twinkling display of joy.

Because that is what all the lights are about this time of year. Joy.

The solstice arrives at 4:48 p.m. on Wednesday, the longest night of the year. It’s when Annapolis shines the brightest, with tiny lights glowing from seemingly every surface, streetlamp post, tree, bicycle, restaurant and even sailboat.

Even my 57-year-old split foyer and the bare trees around it are dressed up in a swirl of bright pinpoints, projected from a laser I’ve planted in the front yard.

Why do we do this? Why do we want things to glow merrily at the point of the year when we reach the solstice?

“It’s about finding joy,” said Audrey Lee, executive director of the Inner West Street Association.

The joy does seem to back this year. Two years of COVID-19 restrictions and warnings have eased up a bit, even if we’re in the midst of a tripledemic of COVID, flu and RSV.

People are willing to step out a little further, risk a little more, to celebrate this moment on the calendar. We’ve been to three holiday parties — including our own — in the last week, and it would have been four if we hadn’t needed a rest on Sunday.

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It’s the same on West Street.

Lee spent days in early November walking the blocks between Church and Westgate circles, passing out fliers and knocking on doors. She was enlisting business owners and residents in the effort to expand the area’s holiday lights.

And it worked. The overhanging lights that have decorated the street are now complemented by decorations on more shops and homes than ever before.

Sure, the goal is in part to get people to come to this corner of the city and dine in its restaurants, visit the shops and listen to music in the bars. But it’s also to simply celebrate life at a moment of maximum darkness.

“It gives you a good feeling, even when you do your own house,” Lee said.

Merchants aren’t the first to see the value in celebrating around the solstice. The observant celebrate winter holidays tied to the calendar. Hanukkah began on Sunday, the 25th day of Kislev. Christmas always falls on Dec. 25 (though thanks to outgoing Gov. Larry Hogan, state workers will get Friday off in addition to the official state holiday on Monday). Many Black Americans start lighting candles on the first day of Kwanzaa, Dec. 26.

But all three have roots in the astronomical cycle.

Matthew (2:1–12) tells the tale of three wise men who followed a star to Bethlehem and offered Jesus gifts, but there’s no mention of a date. As Christianity spread, it adopted solstice celebrations from various cultures to get in on a good thing.

There are arguments that Hanukkah, celebrating the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem, has roots in a solstice festival. Even if that’s not true, there was a public menorah lighting Sunday at City Dock that echoed the focus on holiday lights to illuminate one of the darkest nights of the year.

Kwanzaa has connections too, even if it started as a cultural celebration a year after the Watts Rebellion. The timing, though, and the symbology of lighting candles certainly expresses the growing amount of daylight after the solstice.

The first holiday lights display in Annapolis took place in 1913, an idea fostered by Mayor James Strange and paid for through public donations (there were cost overruns because of a misunderstanding about the loan of the lights).

This year, Brad Robinson just might be the king of holiday lights in Annapolis.

His business, Total Lawn and Landscape, installed the lights on three downtown businesses, Federal House, Zachary’s Jewelers and Acqua Al 2.

It’s the last one that is getting a fair amount of photo replay on social media. Located at the top of Main Street at Church Circle, it’s a restaurant in a renovated historic bank building — security bars are still on the windows.

Robinson’s lights added simple, straight white lines that punctuated the contours of the imposing building. They’re LED lights, a commercial variant of what a lot of people put on their homes this time of year.

But if they seem straighter, cleaner — that’s because Robinson has been doing this for 15 years. Those 694 bulbs attract attention for Acqua Al 2, but also for Total Lawn and Landscape.

“That’s craftsmanship,” he said.

It’s expensive. The display at the top of Main Street cost about $8,500. He has homeowners among his customers, mostly lawyers and doctors and such who are willing to pay that price.

But the motivation is universal.

“These lights, I would say, are for holiday delight. They are a very festive idea,” he said.

Even if they stay up year-round, as they do at Federal House on Market Space, those strings of lights take on more meaning when the nights extend to 15 hours of the clock.

“We don’t get a lot of calls in July for lights,” Robinson said.

The winter solstice is the point when the sun appears to reach its northernmost point relative to the celestial equator each year. The sun will rise Wednesday at 7:21 a.m. and set nine hours, 25 minutes and 54 seconds later at 4:47 p.m.

On Thursday, we’ll get another instant of light. Then, as each day follows, the light will grow until it reaches the summer solstice at 10:57 a.m. on June 21.

And around and around it goes.

When our kids were very young, we told them that to celebrate the solstice, we would dance naked around one of the big trees in our backyard.

The joke, of course, was intended to generate expressions of shock on their young faces as they were awash in the annual deluge of Christmas music, animated movies about Santa Claus and fleeting wishes for peace and goodwill toward all.

It worked, and both remember that moment. If anything, it added to their own sense of holiday and humor.

However you celebrate this time of year, I hope your days are merry and bright.

And with each passing day, you enjoy a few more seconds of light.