Summer Solstice welcomes summer with a celebration of art, creativity and fairies
When organizer and head fairy Susan Sassmann turned 50 years old, she had a Tarot card reading. The intuitive asked her if the Summer Solstice meant anything to her. Sassmann said she did not understand the meaning of that question, until about a year or two later.
“Right out the shoot, she said, ‘Now, what do you have to do with the Summer Solstice?’ I said, ‘What’s that?’” Sassmann recalled. “She said, ‘Hmm, somehow I just see you attached to the Summer Solstice.’”
Sassmann brought the eclectic and creative festival to Greensboro in 2005, initially to launch her business, Joie De Vivre, which was centered around programs “to help bring out the light in people that had cancer.”
“It was a great idea, but it wasn’t a money maker,” she admitted. “Thousands of people came, and we expected it to be a one-time event to announce the business, but it caught on better than the new business did.”
The Summer Solstice, according to Britannica, is when the sun travels the longest path through the sky and thus, causing the most daylight of the year. For Greensboro, Sassmann said the Summer Solstice Celebration is “a whimsical, midsummer night’s dream for about 10,000 people.”
“It is an opportunity for a diverse group of folks who live in the general area and beyond to come together on the longest day in the most beautiful park and enjoy the entrepreneurs in our area, a wide variety of foods, and performers of various genres,” Sassmann said.
Sassmann describes the Solstice as “a fairy festival for grown-ups.”
“A lot of people have a belief system that paganism and Summer Solstice, Winter Solstice, and Equinoxes are all wrapped up in religion, and that is not the case with us,” Sassmann explained. “This is a very nonreligious, nonpolitical event. We really just picked it because it was in the middle of [June], and we thought we’d celebrate the longest day of the year in the most beautiful park with a wide array of all things fairy goddesses would love.”
Though Sassmann said the festival is widely-accepted in Greensboro now, earlier it was not so popular.
“There was a little bit of pushback by people who thought it was maybe an anti-Christian statement, but it is not at all like that, we took the politics and religion completely out and just celebrated the longest day of the year,” she said. “It is a beautiful day. We have never had any violence, threats–never had bad accidents. It is a great day to celebrate living in a beautiful city.”
The Summer Solstice Celebration outgrew the Tanger Family Bicentennial Garden after its first year and moved to a more spacious and aesthetically-fitting venue, the Greensboro Arboretum. This family-friendly festival is from 2 p.m. until 10 p.m. on Saturday, June 22 at the Arboretum (401 Ashland Dr.) and Lindley Park. The cost is $5 for adults (children under the age of 13 get in for free), and Sassmann said costumes are highly encouraged.
This year, the Solstice will feature mermaids basking in the fountain, street performers at every corner, an 8-year-old ukulele player, a drum circle of 25 drummers, three stages for live music playing all day, a fire poi show by Triad Fire Collective and GypSee Hoop Troupe, the famous parasol puppet parade by PaperHand Puppet Intervention, and various kids’ crafts and activities. (For the full schedule of events, visit the Greensboro Summer Solstice website.)
“Golden Mime stands all day long in that heat, frozen, and then as children or adults come and drop money in her bucket, she gets animated and sprinkles glitter on them,” Sassmann said of the iconic gold fairy, who is a familiar face to many that have attended the festival.
Joymongers is the beer sponsor and will have a booth with their craft brews available for purchase. Sassmann said there would also be sangria, white and red wines, and cider for sale for $5. She said T-shirts are $15 and are designed by artist and body painter Scott Frey, who will be painting one of the sponsors for the event. Sassmann said there is parking at Starmount, and street parking off Ashland Drive. But she recommends carpooling or being dropped off.
Sassmann said there would be plenty of security (in plain clothes and uniform) to keep the event safe, along with infrastructure and “everything we need to throw a great event. We just need the sun to come out and dry up all these lakes throughout the park, and we will be golden.”
In the event of inclement weather, Sassmann said that only torrential downpours and severe thunderstorms would cancel the festival, and an announcement would be made the day before.
“If it is kind of rainy, we will go on, because there are over 100 tents. You can go wait in your car or just dance in the rain, which people love to do at Solstice,” she said. “There is always a core group that doesn’t care, and you gotta love those people.”
Sassmann said there are no pets allowed because of the heat.
“We’ve asked everyone to please keep their pups at home in the air condition where they will be happier,” she said.
Opening the Solstice this year is a harpist, yoga class and Reiki circle in the Serenity Garden.
“We are just trying to create that vibe to open the day with gentleness and spirituality,” Sassmann said. “I think that will be lovely, and as the day goes on, the energy rises and peaks at the drum circle.”
The performance line up this year is The Second Line Stompers, Crystal Bright & The Silver Hands, Johanna Breed, West End Mambo, Dean Driver, Kirk Ridge, Jack Gorham, Barry Gray, Kirby Heard, Kelsey Hurley, Sidepony, Renee Henry (harpist), The Ladies Auxiliary, The Healing Force, Banjo Earth, and Liontracks Reggae Band. Sassmann said there would be 25 food trucks of varying cuisines, and 100 vendors selling art, jewelry, clothes and more.
“We are keeping the cost low and the quality high, so people can come and have a place to showcase their new businesses,” Sassmann said. “We are very big on featuring local everything, as much local as we can.”
Sassmann said it takes about 500 people in total to throw this event each year, and she said she starts planning for the next Solstice in January.
“It has been a wonderful, magical, ride for my entire family and friends,” she said.
Sassmann said she loves to see the costumes, people having fun and the Greensboro community coming together for the Summer Solstice Celebration.
“I think when the drumming stops and when it is the final hour from 7 to 8 over in Serenity Garden, that is my favorite part,” Sassmann said. “Because a lot of the pressure is gone. We got to this point, we started at 8 in the morning, and now it is 7 o’clock at night. The sun is down, it is not hot, I can sit and watch people go by and see how happy they are, and the diversity of ethnicity, ages, sexual preferences— you can just take that all in for the final hour, and I think that is my favorite time.” Sassmann said event planners don’t really get to enjoy the events they put on because of how much work goes into event planning.
“The day-of is work, and there is not a lot of enjoying an event until it is over,” she said. “So, you try to grab up those little moments.”
Helping Sassmann this year is her fairy intern Stephanie Coolbaugh. Coolbaugh is a student at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and she is also a singer-songwriter from the band Sidepony (which will be performing at the festival).
Coolbaugh said she works with Sassmann on sponsor relations, volunteer coordination, marketing, financials and public relations. Coolbaugh’s favorite part of the internship is interacting and working cohesively with others “to bring something really positive to the community.” Coolbaugh’s favorite things about the festival are the people and the idea behind it.
“Something that I have come into recently that I really love is finding a home in arts and event planning, and realizing how important it is to have events like this for the community,” Coolbaugh said. “Especially the fact that such an eccentric festival is run by a group of very open-minded people and it brings in a group of very open-minded people. It is very accepting, and it is a platform for people to go and explore their creativity. People who may not feel comfortable doing this in their daily life, [the Summer Solstice] gives them the opportunity to, and I think that is so important.”
Sassmann said what sets Solstice apart from other festivals in the area is its creative energy and diverse attendees.
“It is just a really good day to come together and appreciate your fellow man and woman and the city that you are so proud and lucky to live in.”
Sassmann said she initially pitched the festival as a fairy goddess event, targeting women to “bring out the goddess in everybody,” much like her mission with Joie De Vivre.
“I think that every woman, regardless of her age, seems to have a little fairy inside deep down that maybe hasn’t been activated in a while,” she said. “Most every little girl I know hears the word ‘fairy,’ and their eyes light up. I think we carry that with us our entire lives. We can be a warrior, a businesswoman, an activist, but there is that little fairy goddess in there, too, and that is what we want to bring out.”
She said she was surprised that men had taken a keen interest in the Solstice as well.
“Men have a goddess side too,” she said. “When I have my marketing materials, men will approach me and tap me on the shoulder and point to the poster and say, ‘Do you mind if I have one of those? I love the Solstice.’ That happened to me three different times with middle-aged, white men.”
This year’s Solstice is a bit bittersweet for Sassmann. On March 6, Sassmann lost her friend and mentor, Faye McPherson (former owner of At The Ritz Costumes), who passed away in her sleep at age 78. Sassmann decided to dedicate this year’s Solstice festival to McPherson, to honor her creative spirit.
“To lose her, it left a huge hole in my heart,” Sassmann said. “I am a big fan of leaving the planet the way you want to at whatever stage in life, in whatever fashion you want to leave the planet. I was really proud of her not to go through another decade or two of Alzheimer’s and surgeries and nursing homes; she just wasn’t that kind. She lived her life hard and fast and out loud. Then she decided to go, and she left. No suffering, none of that. It was a huge shock after I got the call the next morning, but I am OK with it. She is right inside me everywhere I go.”
Sassmann said last year, she put together the first Winter Solstice Festival at the Bicentennial Gardens. It was free, open to the public and held at night with a small and intimate gathering of about 250 people. It included candlelight, torches, a bonfire, hot chocolate, hot cider, and subtle, unamplified harp and flute music.
“We played Yo-Yo Ma, we passed out random acts of kindness to people and had people write down their wishes for the future and throw them into the fire and let them burn up in the sky,” Sassmann said. “It was very ritualistic, and based around random acts of kindness; I just think the world needs more of it.”
However, with the Winter Solstice being so close to the holidays, Sassmann said it took up a lot of her time, and she has children, grandchildren and other responsibilities.
“So, I am hoping that going forward, I can find a bevy of folks, up-and-coming event planners, that want to grab it and run with it,” she said. “I’ll advise them how to expand it and move it downtown to Center City Park. Maybe it was a one-hit wonder, and you will never see it again, but I had to do it one time to see how it felt.”
She said she’d like to also see celebrations for the fall and spring Equinoxes, “If I had enough energy and money and I could tap my volunteers over and over again.”
Sassmann hopes that someone might see her vision for these kinds of celebrations and get involved to make it happen.
“Summer Solstice will continue forever, long after I leave the planet,” Sassmann said. “While I am here I am going to enjoy growing. I love being the head fairy.”
Katie Murawski is the editor of YES! Weekly. She is from Mooresville, North Carolina and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in journalism with a minor in film studies from Appalachian State University in 2017.