"It gets dark so early now," one of my friends sighed recently. "Isn't it terrible?" Indeed, when my alarm goes off most mornings "sunrise" manifests only as a lightening of the sky and a thin smear of red along the horizon. And by the time I leave work at five in the afternoon, it is night. When I moved from Texas to New England twelve years ago, I didn't understand entirely what I was getting myself into; my first winter I quailed at the shortness of the days, the bareness of the trees, the way winter here stretches on.
But these days I actually like the foreshortened light and the snow. Somehow I've come to relish winter. I like the balance between the seasons, the sense that as one thing contracts another expands. In summer, the long high light of evening expands the sunlit day; in winter, dark expands and we meet it with fires and feasting. One would be incomplete without the other.
And this landscape needs winter; the trees and plants want their long snow-covered nap. That whole lilies of the field thing isn't from my Scripture, but I can see the wisdom in it. If the blackberry canes and the forsythia and the lilacs want winter, why shouldn't I? In their inchoate way they know spring will come in its time. And the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice, is a necessary precursor to the coming of spring.
If you want to get technical about it, charting the actual solstice can take some work, and involves concepts like the obliquity of the ecliptic. (I recommend last year's Washington Post article on the subject). For my part, I like the convention of considering the solstices and equinoxes to fall on the 21st days of December, March, June and September. That I was born on one of these might have something to do with my preferred mode of reckoning; I like to think that my equanimity relates to my equinoctial birth.
I like the way people come together in the cold and the dark. No one can survive a northern winter alone. Once that was true in a purely practical way; these days the survival tends to be more emotional than physical, but it still depends on connections with community. And in response to that need, community arises. At this time of year I feel an affinity with people in places even further north than we are: Finland, Chena Hot Springs, Nunavut. I imagine people all over the northern edge of the world rejoicing. The coldest days are yet to come, but we're headed towards summer's long light again.
I celebrated the solstice two nights ago at a congenial gathering hosted by friends C and A. They set a beautiful table, adorned with evergreen boughs and candles; we drank hot mulled wine, and ate a cake shaped like a Yule Log (a reference to an old solstice bonfire custom, now a traditional French dessert). I brought homemade eggnog (a quintessential taste of the season, for me, though my recipe is pretty high-test, so we drink it in very small glasses) and a tin of rosemary cookies, made with some of the summer's harvest.
Dumplings are a traditional solstice food in China; in Japan some eat pumpkin while others favor soba noodles. Mulled wine and buche du Noel aside, I'm not sure I know anyone who takes solstice food traditions seriously; maybe we've replaced them with New Year's Day foods. (Among my people, black-eyed peas are de rigeur on the first of the year, and I'd feel weird starting a year without them.)
If you're interested in the symbols and stories of winter solstice and yule, Candlegrove's Yule page is terrifically informative. (I'm especially amused by the part about the yule cat.) For my part, I find satisfying balance in the fact that so many cultures hold festivals of light around now, ensuring that these days which are our darkest in literal terms are also, metaphorically, our brightest. (In my hemisphere, anyway. I suspect the December summer solstice is an entirely different thing than the December winter solstice. If anyone out there is blogging about midsummer this week, send me links...)
I'll close this post with a couple of my favorite solstice-related links. Here are photos of the earth seen from space which show gradations of light and dark around the globe. Here's a bunch of Jewish Winter Solstice tales, thanks to the fine folks at Tel Shemesh. And SB at Oratory posted a beautiful small solstice poem last year. Regardless of whether you celebrate solstice, I hope you can join me in a moment of thankfulness for having made it through the darkening days of another year.