Further inside the building, past the line-ups for tickets into the labyrinth, families with small children were congregating with handmade lanterns, ready to step into the cold for a walk around the block. We decided to venture inward, rather than follow them, and found a square stage dominating the center of the main room, where taiko drummers entertained the crowd.
David, a friend who arrived earlier, eventually pulled us past the drummers to a door in the corner marked with a sign: Lantern Tree Grotto. Inside was dark, a chill room, a theater space, black floors and walls, lit only by a glowing paper tree in the middle of the room, "branches" thick with clusters of papier-mâché covered balloons, each one lit from the inside.
At the far end, musicians in white sat in a row, playing foreign instruments, while the rest of the floor was covered in people lying on the ground, soaking in the music. Occasionally the musicians would take their instruments into the crowd, picking their way through the prone bodies on the ground.
Curious about what else was available, we eventually left and joined one of the random line-ups in the hallway. We could see the shadow of a simple, one person circus act falling on the doors where our line began, so it seemed the most promising. Twenty minutes later, we were let into the room and discovered it had been set up for a puppet show. A small box stage was flanked by a woman in pale face paint, playing an accordion, and a regular floor lamp with cloth flowers pinned all over the shade. A man started the show with a marionette of a bird, fluttering its wings as it explored the front row of the audience, dipping its beak into offered hands.
Next, the man brought out the marionette of a man with fluffy white hair and magnetic hands, the head of a guitar his handle, carrying a metal bucket of paper flowers. Each flower had a twist tie stalk, so the marionette could pick them up as well as the bucket and hand them to members of the audience. When I was handed a flower, the first, I took it from his magnet with mine and tucked it into my hat, a jolly splash of yellow against the dark fuchsia felt.
Once the show was done, the puppets put away, a small girl approached the puppeteer, wondering how it had managed to interact with all of the props. He knelt down and began to say it was magic, but I interrupted, pushing my hand forward with a paper rose attached. "He's right. It's a lovely sort of magic, something that happens with puberty. It's not all bad." The puppeteer looked up at me, his face opening with warmth and surprise. I gestured with the flower attached to my finger. "I'm like your puppet," I said, then walked away, the little girl still standing there, pressing her flower against each of her fingers in turn, a look of deep concentration on her face.
Then came the festival's fire finale. Radiant Heat, dressed as foxes and raccoons, took to the sunken stage outside where the train roundhouse used to be and lit up the night.
The crowds dispersed after the fire show ended. Tear down began, rooms were shut down. We did not leave, though. We had bought tickets to the main event, the heart of the festival: the labyrinth, an experience best left to the end of the night.
Every year at winter solstice, one or two groups will lay out a large labyrinth, usually inside of a large, darkened gym, lined with beeswax candles in paper bags. Soothing music is played and people are let in, a handful at a time, to walk the path. It is a gentle experience, warm and inviting. The one we attended did not allow recording or speech while inside the labyrinth and had a young man urgently whisper these instructions to each participant before they were allowed to walk. It was an awkward way to begin, but amusing. ("Here are the rules to this particular incarnation of a semi-spiritual experience that you are meant to interpret as you will." Sure, kid. Thank you for embodying so much about what I dislike about the wet coast.)
Visitors walking the candlelight #labyrinth at the #Solstice Lantern #Festival. This is a yearly tradition in #Vancouver going back as long as I can remember. Each paper bag contains #beeswax #candles, so the air of the room is thick, overwhelming, and sweet. #ritual #meditation #chanting #crystalbowls #pagan #hippies #pnw #pacificnorthleft #yule