One of the most fascinating manifestations of human creativity is the way we embellish our experience of events in the natural world. Who could have predicted the Yule log, the Nativity scene, and all the other complex structures of custom, cuisine, meaning, and imagination that we built in response to the winter solstice and the ways our bodies adapted to it?
For example, the countless and diverse holiday specialties we bake or cook and the holiday parties we give are rooted in celebrations of the abundance of food. We cherish our traditions, which are surrounded by a complicated web of emotions and rituals, in part because this abundance used to be much more cyclical, and our feasting goes back to an animal urge to bulk ourselves up like bears preparing to head for the den to endure the lean times of winter. Although we realize we won’t need to live off our fat until the land starts to provide food for us again, we still indulge if we can, and the ancient habits of our bodies may still push us toward slumber and torpor at this time of year.
Our feasts are usually part of larger traditions that I believe we created long before the beginnings of Christianity in order to surround ourselves with goodness and light and love and cheer even when the world outside is cold and dark. Perhaps because I have spent so much of my life dealing with depression, the concept of light existing in the depths of darkness and the knowledge that light and new life will return are powerful metaphors for me. By extension, these concepts remind me that life is seasonal, and that the pattern of light and dark is ever shifting.
For Christmas 1995, my younger son gave me a pendant with a rune on it, a dag, which looks like two triangles lying point to point, or an angular infinity symbol. The dag symbolizes daylight or sunlight, but it also has connotations of light after darkness and joy after sorrow. The meaning of this symbol was not lost on me, and I still wear the dag almost every day, reminding myself that time is still turning, and one state of mind and being will inevitably give way to another sooner or later.
I enjoy some sacred Christmas music, although I don’t believe in the literal truth of the Christmas story it tells. Much of my favorite carols from this season deal with yearning for the light or the emergence of light and hope in the long cold winter night, although I conceive of light and hope as being given by nature and by other people. When I listen to Handel’s Messiah, I still thrill to the idea of a long-awaited joy finally arriving, and the hope that those who have walked in darkness will see a great light. Who hasn’t walked in darkness and hoped to someday reach the light? For similar reasons, I like the somber yearning in the song “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” The version of “O Christmas Tree” that I was taught contains the line “You bloom with lights when cold winds blow,” and when I was a child this line enchanted me with its poetry and the image it brought to mind of Christmas lights as glowing flowers.
I also cherish the carols that portray the dark not as joyless or gloomy but as rich with mystery and promise. It’s hard to look favorably on the short gray days of December and January, and I certainly don’t want to romanticize depression, which is for many people, much of the time, an affliction to be healed. Sometimes, however, I can see my darker emotions of grief or sorrow or melancholy as containing their own type of meaning and even beauty. And the physical darkness of winter represents a season of quiet in nature and can be quite lovely. “O Little Town of Bethlehem” has always moved me with its images of the silent stars passing over the deeply sleeping town, and some of the words in “Bring a Torch, Jeanette Isabella” describe what sounds to me like an astronomer’s dream: “Skies are glowing, the heavens are cloudless… .” (For those who love the night sky, there is considerable solace in the presence of stars and planets in the darkness.) Carol lyrics are full of darkness and light and the meaning each gives to the other.
Whatever meaning you give to this time of year, whatever traditions you have for cherishing the light and surviving or even appreciating the darkness, I wish you a happy solstice.
This piece is based on an extract from an earlier post, Thinking meat and the long dark night, which I posted 10 years ago today.