Winter Darkness, Winter Light
by Frank Fox
Since the change from Daylight Savings Time to Standard Time on the last Sunday of October, I have been acutely aware of the thickening blackness, the shorter afternoons of sun, the longer nights. Going down into winter, I find myself wondering, Is there a stop to this, a bottom?
Oh, the head understands and believes that an end exists, but in the gloom of December twilight, the heart ponders decay and death as nature hunkers down, drawing in for winter. The rattle of bare limbs on gray trees in the relentless wind sends a shiver through my hunched shoulders.
Surely the next two or three ice-cold months would be nigh unbearable but for a simple twist of fate. In the midst of the deepest, longest darkness of the earth’s year, a turning occurs.
After the shortest day, the sun begins its march back toward summer vastness. In this scientific era, we can identify the minute of the shift, the turning: On Tuesday, December 21, 2004, at 7:42am Eastern Standard Time, according to the Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C, the north pole begins to tilt back toward the sun.
I have been celebrating winter solstice for more than 20 years. What began as an honoring of an ancient holiday as my antidote to this society’s hype of Christmas has endured as a gut-felt acknowledgment of this land’s annual pivot from darkness toward the light.
Probably as long as humankind has populated the northern hemisphere of the globe, people have gathered in ritual and feast to challenge their fears of the growing darkness and to create ceremonies of dance, song and praise to coax the sun’s return to glory.
Many times in a ritual circle out under the stars, I have led my friends in repeating the words of the folk in a Chicago Catholic community of resistance who worked to end the war in Vietnam:
We have been nourished without food, cried out of joy,
and read in the darkness. We are free.
We have held conversations in silence, lost self by asserting ourselves,
and lost fear by finding it. We are free.
We are beginning to know what’s unknown, share what’s unsharable,
and watch what cannot be seen. We are free, we are free.
So it ever is that we can find confidence through confronting our fears, often bolstered by a company of friends. Yet in the and, in this season we turn inward to wrestle with our own ghosts of light and dark.
Today, though we live surrounded by great technology in warm castles and move in vehicles of glass and steel, we still feel the dark. We light candles or colored lights to dispel the sunless murk and to encourage and celebrate the light, the spirit reborn in the midst of darkness.
In my melancholy December drift down into the dark hole of winter, I also have a knowing that hope will arise again, renewal will come much as a seed germinates in the warm darkness of Mother Earth. So much of life relentlessly cycles through birth, growth, fulfillment, decline, death, rebirth, eh? In that sense, I remember to celebrate the dark as well as the light.
This darkness of our winter lands can be a time of inward reflection when we pause from our holiday scurrying. The dark provides opportunity for rest, dreams and creative incubation. Perhaps we can learn to say with the poet Kahlil Gibran: “Look at the Darkness, Giving Birth to the Sun!”
Frank Fox — writer, teacher and environmental activist — lives in St. Mary’s County.