NEW YORK MILLS -- A gathering that celebrated the year that has passed and the light that is coming: the Longest Night Music Festival was Dec. 21 at the New York Mills Cultural Center. The night elapsed with nine musical and poetical acts, offering the community audience of 105 a time to support and soak in local artists during the winter solstice.

While the festival is a “long-, long-standing tradition” at the Center, according to Cultural Center programs director Cheryl Bannes, the tradition of celebrating the winter solstice carries through Western and Eastern cultures as well. Saturnalia in ancient Rome represented the end of harvesting with gifts and merriment as well as slaves receiving a brief period of equal treatment, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica. The Dongzhi Winter Solstice Festival brings families together in China to remember their previous year, according to the Farmers’ Almanac and Encyclopedia Britannica.

The winter solstice marks the start of winter with the longest night and the start of more sunlight slowly creeping in. At the New York Mills Cultural Center, chattering abounded as friends said hello to one another across the tightly lined rows of chairs and the relaxing, warm night brought people out of the dark to enjoy the songs and poems to come.

“People enjoy it. It’s such a good community, fellowship get-together. It just really brings everyone together and the musicians are great,” Bannes said. “It really is the Christmas feeling.”

The community audience members loosened their ears and vocal chords with Bruce Engebretson as he played Christmas songs on the piano. When the chords of “A Holly Jolly Christmas” were realized, the audience burst into song. And from there the night went from one song to another, from one artist to the next.

WDAY logo
listen live
watch live

For Mark Strom, who has attended for quite a few years, the solstice tradition is a night of community bonding.

“The mixture of people and talent, the variety, it’s all good,” Strom said about what he enjoys at the festival.

The first performance was the New York Mills Community Band, performing for their second time at the festival after forming in 2017. Ten musicians counted their way through the combined holiday songs as audience members bobbed their heads along.

A dose of comedy and laughter came next as singer-songwriter Ben Ranson shared his original song about being “blinded by the whiteness of (a woman’s) teeth,” which were possibly dentures. If the beginning of the night was not eclectic enough, Kevin Mastel offered eclectic folk, and quickly became mentioned throughout the festival by other musicians.

“Thanks for coming out because the arts have been a vital part of my life and always will be,” Mastel said to the audience.

The train whistled through, once, twice, three times. The audience kept their gaze locked on the artist presenting, such as Cultural Center artist in residence and poet Kristina Martino. Her poetry spoke of humans’ interaction with the natural world with an emphasis on sounds and visuals. And with one about figs, the introduction gave a nod to figgy pudding.

Katie Baker sang her grandma and ,om’s favorites, and received “mhmms” as she drummed on her guitar and sang about her life. The audience again joined in for Baker’s last song, “Go Tell It on the Mountain.”

The artists became audience members, tuning into the talents of fellow performers. Dave Virnala came as a favorite since he has performed at all of the Longest Night Music Festivals, each time singing about homegrown tomatoes.

“I have to admit Dave Virnala, the homegrown tomatoes, I make him sing that every year. (Laughs) When he said, and I’ll admit to it, when he said, ‘I got told I wouldn’t get paid unless I sing this song,’ that was me. (Laughs) I was joking. But I ask him every year to sing it,” Bannes said.

With no repeated songs throughout the night, singer-songwriter Erik Keranen performed covers of several singers, including John Prine, a musician two other festival performers also selected songs from. The longest night closed with writer and folk musician Amanda Standalone, who sang a mixture of songs about rural poverty and Christmas. And as she pulled out her violin to mix things up, audience members quickly pulled out their phones for a video.

As the night waned, Standalone invited the audience to sing and other musicians to accompany her in playing “Silent Night” as each wished another to “sleep in heavenly peace.”

“I really loved the end. We’ve never had the musicians all get up together and sing a song at the end like that. That was really special,” Bannes said. “That’s got to be a new tradition.”