Children, Darkness and Intermission

Historically, the Solstice has been one solid emotional arc, beginning bright and festive, slowly turning dark until people literally cry and they literally can’t see, and then coming out the other side.

This year in New York we tried an experiment – we interrupted that by adding an intermission. The first act was explicitly child-friendly. The second act was explicitly PG-13 (with kids activities available upstairs). We did this for several reasons, and overall the comments we’ve gotten have ranged from “intermission was great!” to “I really wish intermission wasn’t necessary but it totally is.”

There are several reasons why:

  1. It allows you both to be welcoming to children, and yet respectful of the experience that many adults want.
  2. Some people don’t like to literally cry in the darkness, or at least are sometimes up for it but sometimes not, but do definitely want to share a holiday night singing together with people. This simultaneously gives them an opportunity to bow out gracefully, as well as reassures them a bit that they could leave if they wanted to, which makes them feel more comfortable staying and crying in the first place.
  3. Practically, people need to go to the bathroom at some point.
  4. Even more subtly practically: New York Solstice is 2 hours of singing. This is more exhausting than you think, and your throat will get dry. (If you’re a first timer it won’t occur to you that you’ll need water). But it won’t seem like that big of a deal during the first half, and by the second half you really won’t want to miss what’s happening, so you end up singing slightly painfully with a dry throat. Explicit intermission gives people a time to get more water without feeling like they’re missing out.

Some of these reasons warrant further explanation:


Children are the future. Literally. And one of the most important things holidays provide is a way to get them involved with their people’s beliefs and community. I think it’s essential for Solstice to be a child-friendly place. And since much of the world is not child friendly, that involves a lot of proactive effort, rather than simply slapping a “child friendly” label on it. Kids have needs and desires that sometimes don’t fit neatly into the convenient boxes we’d like.

At the same time, one of the crucial things the Solstice is able to provide is a powerful, moving experience for adults – one that they literally can’t get anywhere else. And young kids often don’t understand when it’s okay to talk, or scream, or laugh, and when those things would disrupt other people’s experience. And for some people – especially childless adults who traveled far to get to Solstice, it can really tarnish the experience to have a screaming child during the moment of darkness.

I’ve talked to people on both sides of the issue “how welcome should kids be?” and I think it’s important to understand where both people are coming from.

There’s an even subtler issue though – I think it’s important to have “coming of age” rituals. It’s meaningful to have an “adult” focused section, that kids don’t go to until they are old enough to appreciate it. And this may very from child to child. I’m not 100% sure how to best approach this, but that’s also fed into my overall thought process so far.

So our goal at the New York Solstice is to make sure that children are welcome, but that there are other places for them to be during the darkest bits, and that there are people who’s job is to keep them engaged during that time so that parents can enjoy it.

Deeper, deeper dark

New York Solstice also tends to be longer than some others – some of them are only an hour or so, whereas New York dedicates a little over 2 hours to singing and speeches. I think this length is very surprisingly valuable – it lets people get into a deeper, more sacred space than you can get in an hour. I’ve had people tell me “after the first hour, I was still feeling a bit like ‘why exactly are we doing this?” but somewhere around 90 minutes it, I had gotten it in a much more complete sense.”

At the same time, there’s a reason people are intimidated by two hour services: that’s a *long* time to be sitting in a chair. And I’ve *also* gotten feedback in past years about being worn out and unable to appreciate the final third of the event. This year I haven’t gotten any of that feedback. My impression is people were able to fully enjoy the entire event, even in the final stretches.

For all these reasons, and since even the negative comments about the intermission were grudgingly in favor of it, I’m now fully endorsing this as a model others follow (or at least explore and be inspired by).

One Major Change

There is one problem with the two-act structure, which is that it lends itself to a slightly different arc than before. Previously, you wanted to start loud/fun, then gradually get more and more somber, seamlessly, until the moment of darkness. This time, you need a bit of a “mini-climax” at the end of Act I. This requires a song that doesn’t interrupt the “gradually more contemplative” transition, but which still lets you end with a feeling of satisfaction.

Next year my plan is for this song to be “Time Wrote the Rocks”, which is one of the most popular songs of the evening, and I think can be done in a suitably “contemplative but epic” fashion. I certainly invite others to experiment and try whatever songs seem right to them, based on the themes they are exploring that year.