I live in a place where the winter season can stretch well beyond the calendar date for spring’s arrival. Wind, snow, and freezing cold have already forced us into parkas and snow boots, thick scarves wrapped around our necks and knitted toques pulled down over our ears. It is not a time one relishes stepping outdoors to run errands or walk the dog. The light has changed, as has the angle of the sun moving across the sky. Days are shorter; nights are longer, and darkness descends like a curtain in the late afternoon.
In these winter mornings, I awaken to darkness. An early riser, I tiptoe into the quiet and peacefulness, embracing the solitude as a time to write and reflect. Despite the grayness of the winter months, I am often greeted by the sun rising above Lake Ontario in the distance, the dawn a palette of brilliant gold and rose hues painted across the far horizon, one of Nature’s most beautiful gifts before the sun disappears into a curtain of grey cloud. I cherish these dark mornings, unlike my ancestors of long ago. Darkness was not something they took comfort from. As the days grew shorter as winter approached, they watched the sun sink lower into the sky, fearing it might completely disappear and force them into permanent darkness and unending cold. You can almost feel their primitive fear of winter’s darkness, in the first stanza of “Winter Solstice” by Jody Aliesan:
When you startle awake in the dark morning
heart pounding breathing fast
sitting bolt upright staring into
dark whirlpool black hole
feeling its suction…
Although the darkness of winter will continue for some time, this Saturday, December 21, marks the arrival of the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere with the fewest hours of sunlight. Winter solstice is a time our ancestors associated with death and rebirth. Even though winter continued for many weeks, the solstice was a time for celebration because it signaled the return of the sun and warmer seasons to come. The winter Solstice was widely celebrated in many different cultures in the world. In fact, anthropologists believe they may go back at least 30,000 years. Think of those at Stonehenge, where even today, people dress as the ancient Druids and pagans to celebrate the arrival of the winter solstice, or the “Yalda” festival celebration in Iran and other countries, the ancient Romans’ Saturnalia festival and the Scandinavian “Juul,” when Yule logs were burned to symbolize the returning sun and warmth. Even our Christmas and Hanukkah celebrations have been influenced by the ancient rituals marking the winter solstice. It is a time of the year important to many different cultures, as Timothy Steele acknowledges in his poem, “Toward the Winter Solstice:”
…Though a potpourri
Of Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Jews, and Sikhs,
We all are conscious of the time of year;
We all enjoy its colorful displays
And keep some festival that mitigates
The dwindling warmth and compass of the days…
It’s comforting to look up from this roof
And feel that, while all changes, nothing’s lost,
To recollect that in antiquity
The winter solstice fell in Capricorn
And that, in the Orion Nebula,
From swirling gas, new stars are being born.
(From: Toward the Winter Solstice, 2006)
The Solstice promises rebirth and offers a sense of hope even though I realize another year is ending. Perhaps that “death” of the previous year is one of the things that spark so many memories of Decembers past and the people in them. It is not only a time of celebration, but a time of remembering people past and present in our lives, family traditions, and gratitude. It’s a time to look toward our hopes for the year ahead. For now though, I treasure the gifts I find in the beauty of winter’s darkness: a winter moon rising, the dawn of a winter’s morning, the solitude and time to reflect. Just as my ancestors, I feel the promise of rebirth, which the Solstice signifies, also captured in Aliesan’s final lines:
already light is returning pairs of wings
lift softly off your eyelids one by one
each feathered edge clearer between you
and the pearl veil of day
you have nothing to do but live.
(From: Grief Sweat, Broken Moon Press, 1990)
As winter solstice approaches this weekend, take time to remember nature’s cycle of life–birth, death and rebirth. It is humankind’s cycle too, and woven into our holiday celebrations. It’s a cycle repeated in times of darkness or struggle, moving into light, from illness, loss, pain or suffering into healing. The symbolism of the winter solstice offers a rich metaphor to think about our cycle of life, health and illness, aging, loss and love, times when hope may have faded or we feared little but endless darkness. Yet, somehow, there is always rebirth, and in that cycle, there is hope. You have nothing to do but live.
- Using the metaphor of the winter solstice, write about your own journey through of a kind of “death” and rebirth, a journey of darkness into light, or discovering a sense of life renewed.
- Take Aliesan’s phrase, “You have nothing to do but live” and use it to trigger your writing.
- Recall a memory of winter or the December holidays that stays with you. Write its story.
I wish each of you the warmth and joy of the holiday season.