This is a writeup of how I run Secular Solstices, in as much detail as I can muster. I think most of the existing guides to running Solstices are now somewhat outdated, and not as step-by-step "this is what you need to do when"; I hope this one is a helpful addition.
This post assumes you are basically familiar with what Secular Solstice is and what tends to happen in one; if you aren't, I'd recommend checking out the post The Arc Breakdown first for a rough description of what it is like.
I was in the Bayesian Choir for about 6 years. As part of that, I participated in 4 Secular Solstices in the Bay Area plus one online in 2020, performed solo or in a small group in 3 of those, and organized / sang in several songs in the 2018 Bayesian Choir spring concert. In addition, I have run my own independent small Solstices several times: one in DC in 2015, a small one in the Bay in 2016, a tiny outdoor social-distanced one in DC in 2020, plus two mid-sized ones in DC in 2021 and 2022. In other community and ritual stuff, I've also run meetups for a long time and have run two Rationalist Seders with custom content.
I don't have much experience with running big Solstices (50+ people), but because I was in the Bayesian Choir for a while, I have at least a vague idea of how things go at that scale.
The step-by-step timelines in this post are the ones that I use, targeted towards a Solstice size of 20-40 people, with a substantial amount of music practice and a moderate amount of polish involved. But you can get the time down A LOT if you bring down the production value. You can reduce the amount of musical prep time by having fewer musicians, smaller groups of musicians (one person leading a song can practice on their own, instead of meeting for a rehearsal), hiring professional musicians, or just by doing everything a cappella or singing along to karaoke tracks. You also might need less lead time on a venue if your group is small enough to fit in someone's house, for example.
I'd recommend starting the planning process a few months in advance, just to figure out those possibly-time-sensitive details first; if you find out you need less lead time than you thought, then just relax for the next month or two!
For a bigger Solstice, more time is needed, more like 6 months up to almost the entire year for planning. Venues for 100+ people often are booked very far in advance, and it takes time to coordinate the number of volunteers you will need to put on a larger event. Even with this many people, though, there are ways you can decrease lead time substantially: (a) decreasing the number of volunteers drastically and (b) living in a large city with lots of venue options. In any case, if you're putting on an event of that size, I doubt you need or want my advice.
Your venue is the biggest piece here, and you should figure it out as soon as you can, because larger venues tend to book up early. And many other logistics depend on it.
The first thing to do is to get an estimate of your number of attendees. If you live in a city that hasn't had a Solstice before but has had meetups, take the typical number of attendees at a meetup and multiply by 2-3 as an initial guess. Or if you can, try to estimate the total number of distinct attendees across meetups in a year. Typically people will make more effort to show up to a once-a-year event.
With 10-30 people, you can cram into someone's house. If you're okay with more crowding or have a big house, maybe you can fit more.
Around the 30-50 person mark there are a bunch of smaller venues that aren't too expensive, like churches and such (this obviously depends on your local area). You might not want a venue with explicitly religious imagery, but there are some denominations that don't do that kind of thing as much (Quaker/Unitarian Universalist, for example).
Other places may work too. I really like doing Solstice outside, because you can use the sun as your lighting change for the first arc. However, outdoors may be cold, have other weather issues, or be logistically difficult. For example, near where I live, you can rent out picnic areas, but most parks close at sunset, which makes it tough when so much of the ritual really needs to happen after dark. We did do one tiny outdoor Solstice in DC in 2020, which worked remarkably well despite being extremely cold; I brought a lot of blankets and told everyone to dress warmly.
Other logistics to figure out very early on:
Many things depend on the program, such as: how many musicians you need, how many speakers you need, which people you should ask, what kind of preparation and legwork you need to do, etc. So it's best to get at least a rough outline several months in advance.
Selecting a Theme
Having a theme is helpful for picking out song and speech choices, and for writing material specific to that year.
You don't necessarily need to have a specific named theme (although if you have paper programs, it's nice to have something to put on them). The important thing is knowing what you want to address in your Solstice, what your creative goals are for it, and what things should therefore be included and what should be cut.
For example: In 2021, my co-organizer and I wanted to address the aftermath of COVID, while mostly moving on from talking about it directly. So we went with a theme of "healing from trauma," which led to the ritual elements she designed and helped us structure the other parts of the program.
It's nice to have at least a little bit of introductory material that the organizer writes themself. The simplest thing to do is to introduce what Solstice is and talk directly about the theme a little bit.
Consider how long you want your Solstice to be, in order to determine how many pieces you will need. I usually aim for 75 minutes and end up closer to 90. This typically means a total of around 20 "items" (songs, speeches, and ritual elements) of 3-5 minutes each.
Most Solstices do 90-120 minutes. If it's more than 2 hours, you probably need an intermission for people to pee and stuff, which you would then need to place carefully so it doesn't interrupt the arc, etc. For that reason I'd recommend keeping it fairly short. If you want it even shorter, I think you could do a decent version of the arc in as little as 45 minutes. Just make your selections carefully.
Have two separate times for "doors open for socializing" and "the Solstice ritual begins." I usually give about a half hour between the two. Start the ritual on time and let the latecomers fall where they may.
When reserving a venue, don't forget to leave time for both setup and takedown.
The Solstice Arc
The Solstice arc has shifted a little over the years, but it usually has more or less this shape:
There's a happy part at the beginning, then it gets serious, then it gets REALLY serious and sad, culminating in a Moment of Darkness (and silence). Then at the end we reopen with hope, and end with joyful songs about being together.
This post is quite old at this point, but it gives a good idea of the original notion of how the Solstice arc should hold together: The Arc Breakdown. (I think some of the logistical advice and song choices are pretty different from what I'd suggest now.)
You can play with this general shape, however. The length of the different sections; the exact tone you take in each one; etc. In a couple of Bay Solstices, the arc looked entirely different and was mostly focused on a more triumphant/hopeful tone, with only a brief break for sadness closer to the beginning.
If you want to stick closer to previous iterations of the Solstice arc, there are plenty of examples of full programs on the Secular Solstice Resources page, which you can crib from as much as you want. I also highly recommend the Masterlist of Solstice Content, maintained by mingyuan, which is a spreadsheet of Solstice songs that's a bit easier to navigate than the content on Secular Solstice Resources.
My Solstice arc "paint by numbers" system
There are many other ways to put this together, but this is the way I usually think about structuring a Solstice program:
Figure out who you need to help you, based on at least a loose idea of the program. If you're doing music, you should have plans for this a few months in advance, because that's how long it takes a musical group (who are amateurs and all have full-time jobs or similar) to get together and practice. How much time this takes goes something like (1/musical skill * how many pieces you want * how much polish you want * (number of people in the group)^2).
My philosophy on volunteers: It's a good idea to spread things out among many different people, to promote a sense of community and greater participation and involvement. All else equal, you want to farm out as much as you possibly can. Sometimes the help is even actually helpful, but I view that as something of a bonus.
Send out emails early to recruit, preferably 2-3 months. If you need to recruit musicians, you need to know who they will be, especially because this may affect your program selections (do you have anyone who can do the piano part on that song? Do you have enough singers for that harmony?). It's all interdependent.
Get clear on how much commitment you want from people, and ask them for it, directly. ("We're having rehearsals every other week for the next 2 months, can you commit to that?") Don't dither around about "what works for you?," it typically just wastes time if both sides are wishy-washy. If what you're asking is too much for them, you can negotiate or they can say no. If they ghost you, assume you're not hearing back.
If you've done things right, you will have a month or three in between all the big decisions and Solstice itself to do the remaining work, like writing speeches, designing ritual elements, finishing up the program, and doing all the music rehearsals.
Finishing the program
Any speeches and rituals with a "TODO: write this" on them get written during this period. (The more you steal, the less you have to do here.)
Finalize what's going to be in it. If you want to rearrange the program and add or delete items, try to get that done as early as possible, especially if this will affect other people who are speaking or performing. You can postpone decisions that only affect yourself for longer. But anything you add will need enough notice and rehearsal time to prepare for.
Another thing to consider adding: In 2022, the Bay Area Secular Solstice had Scott Alexander as the creative director, and he wrote connecting speeches explaining what was going on between basically every item on the program. I haven't seen any other Solstices do this, but it seemed to work really well! Consider adding connecting speeches to your program, if you have the time and inclination to write them.
Running rehearsals and directing a musical group is a skill in itself. If you happen to have anyone in your community who's already experienced with this, that's a huge bonus. The percentage of musicians who are reasonably experienced will also help a lot. If the musical director isn't you, it's important for that person to share your vision of what Solstice should look like and the creative vision for each song. (You don't have to have opinions on every song, but when you do, you need to have alignment about them.)
I personally feel that it's important for the musicians to come from the community itself. There are those who disagree, and think hiring outside help is no big deal. Here's why I think it's better to use community members:
There are some other pros and cons that may be relevant to you, though I regard them as ultimately less important:
Of course, the best option would be to have a professional musician from within the community, who's perhaps even willing to work for free or cheap. There aren't too many of those last I heard, but if you're lucky enough to have them in your area, do what you can to recruit them. (They might have more opinions on the program, though, so you'd still want to give them some advance notice to discuss!)
There are a couple options if you have few to no musical resources. Some Solstice songs might have karaoke tracks available (especially those that are not Solstice originals). Others you can do pretty well just by singing, with no backing. It doesn't have to be perfect! You can have a good and powerful Solstice event even if you don't have any professionals involved. Sometimes it's more important what you're singing or saying, and who you're doing it with. This kind of Solstice might just be held at someone's house, using their speakers or TV for karaoke tracks, or using nothing at all, just singing together.
If this is the way you want to go, I'd suggest going through the list of songs you want to do and figuring out which ones are karaoke-able or just singable independently, either by you or someone else who is confident enough to lead a song. Ask for help either with leading songs, or with managing the technology system if you need that. And then go ahead with it. You shouldn't need as much prep time -- just a little bit for the person leading each song to get extra-comfortable with it. I'd suggest nailing down your song choices and leaders 3-4 weeks in advance if you go this route.
It does help a lot to have song leaders, even if they're not particularly better at singing than everyone else: just having a Schelling person to start the song helps keep things moving.
If you're the financial backstop for the event, you can handle this at the last minute. If you need to apply for grants or do crowdfunding, you'll have to do it near the beginning of the planning process, after you've selected your desired venue but before you have secured it.
You should ask for donations. I feel that having some community contributions is important and encourages attendees to feel more invested, compared to one person or an outside organization funding the entire thing. Plus, it's not fair for an organizer to backstop all of it themselves when they're also spending so much time on it.
I have only ever done either "organizer pays for everything" or "organizer pays upfront and requests donations to cover costs." If you're not in a financial position to do either of those, you have a few options, all of which will take more time.
Make an estimate of your costs and attendees to get a "suggested donation" number. I would advise having a "pay what you want" option to be inclusive to those who are hard-up financially. It's also nice to add a 2x suggested donation option phrased as "cover someone else's ticket."
Having been an organizer for longer now, I think having a "youth" or "student" ticket might be a good idea, too; fresh blood is important and you want those people to know you value them, plus younger people usually have less money.
There's also the option of actually selling tickets in advance. This is likely helpful if you have a larger group (I have never had to do this). It helps to know how many people are actually going to show up, especially at larger scale. You can add a "free ticket" option on some platforms, so people don't have to pay but effectively have to RSVP.
Our last Solstice of around 35 people cost around $550 total, though we'd estimated it at $700 ahead of time. We asked for donations to help cover the cost, with a suggested donation of $20 per person, and covered the rest of it ourselves (me + one other organizer). We ended up getting roughly 80% of the costs covered by attendees.
This depends on your local group's demographics, but I think having kids included is important for the health of the community. However: Solstice is only partially kid-appropriate, plus kids might not be able to sit still and quiet enough. You don't want them disrupting others' experience. IMO, having a separate kids' area with paid childcare available is the best solution.
At our last Solstice I encouraged people to bring in their kids during the kid-appropriate part; my spouse brought our baby son up for the fun songs at the end and it was wonderful to see him while I was performing.
How much time you need to arrange this will depend on your personal situation. If I didn't know anyone at all who could do childcare, I'd start asking around a couple months in advance to generate some leads and figure out who would be the best choice. We had last year's Solstice at a religious venue that had a regular childcare provider, and she was also able to cover our event. That worked out really well, since she was already familiar with the space and it was easy for everyone logistically.
We considered the childcare part of the cost of Solstice; it was available for anyone bringing their kids.
Another potentially good option, along with childcare for small kids, is to do a minified version of Solstice put on for the kids by volunteers in the community. Prior art.
Bay Area solstice has sometimes hosted pre-Solstice singing parties to get people familiar with the songs so they can sing along at Solstice itself. I haven't done this in the past but I think it can be nice.
You get better attendance if you advertise further in advance. For a big event like Solstice, I suggest one month as a minimum to maximize the room in people's schedules. Then, at a minimum, send a reminder at the one-week mark.
You may also want to send additional reminders/requests if anything specific comes up that you want to tell people about, like requests to join a potluck, information about the program, etc.
You can decide how much polish you want. You probably want more the bigger your Solstice is.
Things that improve polish: Have people practice speeches beforehand so you know how long they take. Do a dress rehearsal for the music. If you're planning any AV or recording devices, even as simple as buying a recording device and turning it on during the performance, test that out beforehand to check if the technical setup is good. (If you have a real venue and a lot of people, you probably want one or more people on sound, and some time at the venue to do an AV rehearsal beforehand.) Are people supposed to sing along? Where do they get lyrics? How are you setting that up?
Will you have paper programs? Those can be helpful to tell people what to expect, plus they can serve as nice mementos and a record later on. How will you get them printed? When will they be finalized? These should ideally contain the names of everyone who participated in making Solstice happen -- you want to double check the spelling of names before you get it printed.
Are there material components you need? Candles? Props for your ritual or icebreaker? Who will be handling any lighting changes, and do they need to practice beforehand? Figure out who is going to do any other tasks that will need doing during the ritual (grabbing the X prop from Y location and handing it to person Z, holding the light for person W who will be busy playing an instrument, etc.). Remember that you may be busy during the ritual, so try to get as much help as you can for these little day-of tasks.
Show up on the day and do it!
The organizer needs to show up early. Think about how much time you will need for setup and A/V. Sound checks take time, even fairly simple ones. Add a little extra buffer if you have a lot of people volunteering. Err on the side of more time if you're not sure and haven't done this before. As you get better at it, you can start leaving less slack than before.
Don't forget to thank everyone who helped, especially if you have anyone who isn't in the program for whatever reason. It's very, very important to show people who help out that you value them and appreciate their work!
Collecting feedback is nice, although it's hit or miss how much you'll actually get from attendees. More importantly, you want to talk to everyone involved in actually running it or performing and ask them what could have been done differently; they are likely to have some very specific opinions about it.
It's better to collect feedback as quickly as possible, so people's memories are still fresh. You can have paper forms at Solstice, or talk to people afterward, or do a Google form posted quickly afterward.
Technically this isn't mandatory, but it is highly recommended :-)
Please do send your Solstice program to Secular Solstice Resources, so it can be archived for posterity and used by others running Solstices. You can do this in the form of a pull request to the Git repository, if you have the technical expertise. If not, you can send your Google docs or whatever to Daniel Speyer (dspeyer at Google's email service), who maintains the archive. Ideally, you should include all the text of your speeches and songs, plus any additional resources you have, such as sheet music. But even just a listing of what songs and speeches you used is helpful.
One of my favorite Solstice concepts, which unfortunately did not have quite the effect intended and resulted in one casualty, was to have it outside, use the sun for the initial "get darker" arc, and then after the Moment of Darkness, move the group over to a place where the city lights were visible and sing Brighter than Today in front of them. I still think this could work. If you live in Berkeley, check out Cesar Chavez Park by the Marina. (And watch out for tree branches in the dark.)
I view Secular Solstice Resources as more of an archive, with all of the Solstice content on a saved, publicly accessible website forever, with no broken links or Google Docs moldering on some random person's Drive. This is super valuable, but it's unfortunately not very easy to browse and use. I would love to have something that works both as an archive and an easily-browsable, searchable, filterable resource that you could use directly for building a Solstice program. Something for the code monkeys among us to consider in their spare time.
I've only run a total of 6-7 rehearsals for one Solstice, so I would call myself only very mildly experienced with this skill. But if anyone's interested, I could write a followup post on what that was like.