Solstice

As winter draws near, it is a perfect time for a bit of reflection on the winter solstice. In modern times, this day often goes by completely unnoticed. Most could not tell you the date of the solstice even if they know what the day means. We are so caught up in the other holidays that fall around this time of year, the solstice slips by like a owl at night, silent and unseen.

This is largely the result of our recent immunity from nature’s rhythms. Our homes with their thermostats keep us warm against the cold, electricity provides light even in the depths of night, our cars in most cases make the snow irrelevant. For most of us this time of the year only slightly affects our work and home life.

This was most assuredly not the case for our northern ancestors. For them the winter solstice was in many ways the most important of holidays. Winter for them was an all consuming affair. Keeping warm was a struggle. The days were short so time for work was reduced. If you were not well prepared, winter was not just an inconvenience, it could be deadly. For them winter was serious business.

Just imagine. The harvest has come and gone. The fields are bare and each day is now shorter than the one before. The nights are long and cold. Snow blankets the world. The rivers and creeks are frozen. Easy travel is now difficult and hard journeys impossible. Isolation becomes the norm.

The sun is low on the horizon. Its rays have lost their warmth and its light seems feeble against the advancing night. It seems as if the night and ice have vanquished the light giver all together. Will the world be plunged forever into the gloom? Will the fields never see green again? Will the game ever return?

Of course today these questions seem foolish to us. The sun has not changed, the Earth simply tilted and in its normal course around the sun, warm weather will return.

But to our ancestors without the benefit of modern astrophysics, these questions were terrifying. What if winter never ended?

But then as if by miracle a day came, a special day when the sun began to rise higher, a day that marked each day becoming longer. This day held the promise of Spring, when green would return to the world. Even though the nights were still long and cold, you knew that light and warmth would come back. That the fields would blossom again and the game would return.

So this day was celebrated. Fire was made against the darkness as if to remind it that its triumph was temporary. That light and life would push back the night and ice.

The promise of that special day made winter less menacing. It allowed our ancestors to see the hidden charms of winter, safe in the knowledge that Spring would come. Isolation did not lead to despair but to reflection, to a special bond with family and neighbors upon whom we both depended and assisted. The hardships of winter were but the birth pains of spring, preparing us for more life.

So solstice was a magical time. A time of reflection, of hope, and of promise. A time to celebrate life and light.

And even today, so removed from these cares, immune to winters hardships, somewhere in those forgotten backwaters of our subconscious we hear an quiet echo of that life. Against the long nights, as if by reflex, we bring special lights into our homes. We hang green and red, the colors of life, against the cold and dark. We light fires and make merry. All as if to laugh in the face of winter, to say to the cold and ice and darkness, I know you. I know you are temporary. We will see the green again.

So maybe we don’t know the holiday. Perhaps we don’t remember the date. But somewhere, deep inside, we remember.

So take consolation in the solstice. Make merry. Bring in the lights. Burn the yule log for the dark and cold even with its own charm, will give way to the green. Life always finds a way.

Gifts of Winter

Doesn’t the darkness make the lights all the more bright and the cold the fire all the more inviting?

The long flight home with strangers bundled up, the more intimate that hug at the door?

The message, “I’m on my way”, then the wait make that kiss all the more passionate?

The wrapping and the shuffling and the parking and the lines make that wrapping under that tree all the more glowing?

Those lone white stars against the black ribbon of night all the more serene?

For winter is separation and the study of patience but a secret joy brought in its good time.