This week I have been pulled into an unsettling spiral that set me to thinking about darkness and death even in this season of joy and franticness. Despite the piles of Christmas cards and the antics of a kitten discovering his first box of wrapping paper supplies, I felt oddly bereft and adrift. I was not sure what scared me more – the emotions themselves or the fact that they should set upon me during this time of year when it is all about extending oneself by dragging through stores and baking that extra batch of cookies and generally “being in the spirit.” There is nothing worse than being called a Grinch or a Humbug in the weeks before Christmas, but sometimes it seems we slap those labels on one another because we are so terrified of acknowledging that we are having trouble hearing those distant sleigh bells ourselves.
One reason I started this writing project in the first place was because I became aware of the way so many things I thought I already knew had a way of sneaking up on me to appear as a totally new burst of wisdom. So here’s another epiphany that I have “known” for years but clearly never found a meaningful resting place in my soul. Today we have reached the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year when the earth stands still for a moment before tilting back on itself to reveal to us in the northern hemisphere longer, sun-kissed days. The weeks approaching the Solstice are full of darkness both in the celestial and spiritual sense. We feel called to slumber and reserve our resources in this bleakest time. I celebrated Midwinter for years, but I do not think I really understood that stillness of the earth that stands so close to death until now, and I certainly never felt its pull like this before.
If we are as connected to nature as I believe, it is inevitable that we should be affected by the slow winding down of the world around us. Of course, the reason I can speak of death so blithely is that it is just one turn in the cycle away from the rebirth that means an earlier dawn and an inevitable spring. We honor the birth of Christ at this very moment exactly because of this return of the sun. This sense of celebration sets us in a great paradox, however, as we fight our animal natures that tell us that winter is the time for hibernation and the contemplation of mortality. Human nature seems set to defy the wider rhythm of nature in so many instances, and this is no exception as we distract ourselves from the shadows with a festival of light. Wait, that sounds too critical, because I love that we are such ingenuous creatures who recognize the need to kindle a fire rather than curse the night. I just think it necessary to recognize that something more primal than western style consumerism or religious holidays may be at work on our souls right now. Some of the Scrooge impulse is certainly born of burn-out and weariness, but some of it may be that the secret parts of our spirits that have always listened to the sun and the moon and watched the trails of the stars are now yearning for quietude. We all feel the loss of loved one who have passed on more keenly in December. Part of that sorrow is the bittersweet memory of how they my have looked by the glow of a Christmas tree, but this remembrance of how death has touched our lives may also spring from the Earth itself as it whispers to us in these moments of deepest darkness.