October is bittersweet. Beauty is all around, and autumn is one of my favorite times of year, but the beauty is shadowed by the foreknowledge of the coming cold and dark. November is less ambiguous. The dark is closing in; grayness has arrived. I moved from Phoenix to Bloomington in November, which amazes me now because November is generally dreary in Bloomington, whereas that’s the time of year when Phoenix is coming into its own after the heat of summer. I loved my first winter here, because the snow and the cold were so different from what I was used to. I still appreciate the changing seasons and the magic of a world regularly transformed, and I like the coziness of fleece and hot baths and long winter evenings spent reading on the couch. But even after 25 years here, it’s still something of a shock every November when I remember how cold and dark the winter is, when I can no longer simply walk out the door but need to gear up for the cold, when I leave work at 6:00 and it’s already dark. I always go through a brief rebellion against the encroaching winter: Do people really live with this? Why did anyone decide this place was habitable? How long before it starts getting better?
Winters were worse right after my mother died, five years ago last month; the first winter after her death seemed far more bleak and desolate than usual, and I felt like spring might never arrive. Winter doesn’t hit me quite that hard any more, and I acclimate reasonably well so that by January, a 40-degree day seems like a balmy gift rather than an insult. But I still feel trapped sometimes, carried helplessly along as the earth makes its slow, slow circuit around the sun and carries my part of the planet into the growing darkness. I think of how many weeks it is until the solstice; that’s how long before we start getting more daylight. When it’s six weeks to the solstice, that means twelve weeks of things being at least as dark as they are now (a disheartening calculation I tend to make early in November, when I am first coming to grips with the season). As the amount of time until the solstice dwindles, it’s comforting to realize that the darkest time is at hand and after that, things can only get better.
I generally enjoy the holiday season, and I still find plenty of beauty in the hush of a night-time snowfall or the complicated outlines of bare tree branches against the sky. But during the winter, my energy and enthusiasm are diminished. It’s harder to get out of bed in the morning. I joke sometimes that I believe I’m solar powered, and when I go too long without seeing enough sunshine, my battery starts to wind down and needs to be recharged. (And of course, in a sense I am solar powered, just like the rest of the living world.)
Another thing I joke about is that in the winter we were really meant to hibernate. I’m not by any means the first one to suggest this. Anne Morrow Lindbergh wrote, “Perhaps I am a bear, or some hibernating animal underneath, for the instinct to be half asleep all winter is so strong in me.” And in fact, the seasonal changes in appetite, sleep, activity, libido, and sociability that are associated with the winter months have been called “attenuated hibernation”, and some of the physiological changes in people with SAD resemble those of hibernation. SAD, seasonal affective disorder, is at the extreme end of the spectrum; at the other end are individuals who are unaffected by the changing seasons, and many of us in the middle are somewhat affected but not clinically depressed. Seasonality is the name given to the tendency for mood and behavior to change according to the time of year.
SAD and seasonality are to some degree heritable, and researchers have begun to investigate the biochemistry underlying SAD (involving perhaps serotonin, dopamine, and/or melatonin) and the genes that might be responsible. Some have suggested that because we evolved in an equatorial climate where day length and temperature do not vary much during the year, we are not well-suited to life at higher latitudes. Others claim that rather than being a liability, seasonality and SAD are part of a complicated set of adaptive changes that enhance reproductive success.
There is some evidence for this claim. SAD is most common among women of child-bearing age; it’s less likely to occur in men and it tends to get better in women as they age. Another clue comes from the cyclic pattern of human births throughout the year. We are so divorced from natural rhythms these days that we can’t really tell much from current birth patterns, but some studies of older data seem to show that births typically peak in late winter and early spring at temperate northern latitudes. And while the symptoms of SAD are not typical of some other types of depression, they seem to resemble those of pregnancy.
The idea is that late summer, autumn, and early winter are optimum times to be pregnant, because food supplies are greatest then. Women who lessened their physical activity, ate a lot of carbohydrates, and put on some weight were best able to provide the nourishment that their unborn children needed. (The effects of inadequate nutrition before birth appear to be a threat not only to the child itself but, if the child is a girl, to her own eventual reproductive efforts.)
Furthermore, people with SAD are often mildly jazzed in the late spring and summer, getting friskier just when they would need to be conceiving their children to optimize the time of birth. (There’s even been some speculation about whether the whole cycle promotes pair-bonding and whether there’s a link between SAD and creativity, as there seems to be between other types of depression and creativity.) So perhaps women whose biochemistry responded to shorter days with lethargy, carb cravings, and weight gain were more likely to pass along their genes to the next generation.
Even if that’s not what happened, it makes sense to me that we might, like other animals, have once needed to hunker down and conserve our physical resources during the winter, put on a coating of fat to see us through the lean times, not waste energy foraging for food when none was to be found, and emerge in the spring thin and hungry but alive. (And of course it’s not just animals that respond to the varying length of the day; our seasonal cycles are governed to some degree by those of the plants we depend on. We’re part of nature, and nature slows down during the winter.) Perhaps our early winter feasts, like Thanksgiving and Christmas, are relics of our response to a more sharply seasonal food supply. I wonder if the church adopted Lent as a way of making a virtue out of necessity; if you are going to fast, do it at a time of year when the previous harvest is running low anyway, and the memory of your winter feasts is far behind you.
These days, though, we in the developed world can generally keep feasting all year round, and while our bodies may be programmed to store some fat for the lean times, the lean times generally don’t materialze. Another difference these days is that for many people, job responsibilities don’t taper off during the sleepy low-energy months of winter. Whether a mild depression is an intrinsic part of a physiological response to the seasons or not, the weight gain and sluggishness of winter might make you feel blue if you live in a culture that values slenderness and often requires a high level of activity year-round. A couple of papers I read suggest that seasonality might now be maladaptive, but I don’t think anyone knows whether it truly has any effect on a person’s reproductive success or if it simply detracts from the quality of life.
However we got to be this way, it’s fascinating to see the psychological and emotional layers we’ve added onto the response of our bodies to the cycles of nature. Humans build the most amazing structures of custom and habit and imagination on top of the basic biology we’ve been given. Holiday indulgence is a staple of our experience this time of year. Think of all the reasons we give ourselves to gorge: family parties, work parties, a thousand holiday specialities that people bake and cook. I like the idea that all this ritual consumption, cherished in countless family traditions and surrounded by a complicated web of emotions, perhaps goes back to an animal urge to bulk ourselves up like bears preparing to head for the den. Think of those Godiva chocolates and pumpkin pies and imagine a bear grabbing salmon and berries. We loosen our belts and groan and resolve to hit the gym in January because we know that we have an abundant food supply year-round and won’t need to live off our fat until the land starts to provide food for us again. But the ancient habits of our bodies still push us toward slumber and torpor. (I like the clinical words “anergia” and “hypersomnia”; I imagine myself telling my co-workers that I won’t be at work today because I have been felled by those twin scourges, anergia and hypersomnia. It sounds better than saying I just can’t force myself to my feet.)
The feasting is usually part of traditions that I believe we created to surround ourselves with light and love and cheer even when the world outside is dismal. The traditions form part of the cycle of human life on some parts of the planet, which is woven into the cycles of light and dark that we move through yearly. The cycles of nature have deep meaning for me and affect my beliefs and even my behavior. I believe that the light will come back and that joy follows sorrow just as light follows darkness. That powerful metaphor shapes my ideas about life to such a degree that I wonder how people in the tropics shape their ideas in its absence. And one of the reason I enjoy living in a place with seasons is that I relish being reminded that we need to be able to deal with both light and darkness, joy and sorrow. I take to heart George Santayana’s words, “To be interested in the changing seasons is a happier state of mind than to be hopelessly in love with spring.”
For Christmas 1995, my son Patrick 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. 1995 was a particularly hard year for me, and the meaning of this symbol was not lost on me. To this day I wear the dag almost every day, reminding myself of the cycles of life, and that even the worst of times must end and give way to something better.
The idea of light after darkness is central to the meaning of this season for many people, or even light in the darkness, like the little spot of white in the dark side of a yin-yang symbol. Much of my favorite music from this season deals with a yearning for the light, for redemption, and with the arrival, in the long cold dark night, of light and hope. Even though I don’t believe in the literal truth of the Christmas story that Handel’s Messiah portrays, I still thrill to the idea of a long-awaited joy finally arriving, and the hope that those who walked in darkness will see a great light. Who hasn’t walked in darkness, and hoped for light to show the way? For similar reasons, I like the somber yearning in the song O Come, O Come Emmanuel, even though I do not believe that a messiah ever came to earth from heaven or ever will come. As a child I was enchanted by the idea of a Christmas tree blooming with lights when cold winds blew, even though there were not many cold winds where I grew up.
I also still cherish the carols that portray the dark not as joyless or gloomy but as rich with mystery and promise; perhaps the dark gives birth to the light, contains it and is necessary for its existence. O Little Town of Bethlehem has always moved me with its images of the silent stars going over the deeply sleeping town, and the everlasting light shining in the dark streets. 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 the stars in the darkness.) Carol lyrics are full of darkness and light and the meaning each gives to the other.
While I enjoy the summer solstice, I pay far more attention to the winter solstice. I’ve always thought that as wonderful as midsummer celebrations are, the winter solstice is the one to really mark with a great hurrah, because it means you’ve hit bottom and can only go up. The summer solstice for me has always had a little bit of the bittersweet to it; you are at the peak, the apex of sun and life, and although the season has much growth and unfolding to do, you are inevitably headed into the next phase of the cycle. (Maybe that’s the spot of black in the white side of the yin-yang symbol, this knowledge that the night is gathering force from here on out.) Each phase contains the seeds of the following one. For some reason, I can more fervently celebrate being at the bottom about to head back up than I can being at the top and about to head down.
On Weather Underground, you can see how much shorter each day is than the day before it, and then, after the solstice, how much longer each day is than the day before it. Rounding that corner matters a lot to me. After the solstice, the evenings start to get better before the mornings do, and since I’m on the western edge of a time zone, we have some very late sunrises in the winter. When the sun finally rises before 8am, around January 20, a month or so after the solstice, then I feel like I have turned another corner. I don’t pay anything like that kind of anxious daily attention to the amount of daylight around the summer solstice, much as I luxuriate in the long summer days. When a resource is abundant you don’t cherish it to nearly the degree that you do when it’s scarce.
Whatever meaning you give to this time of year, whatever traditions you may have for cherishing the light and surviving or even appreciating the darkness, I wish you a happy solstice.
(Originally posted December 21, 2005)