Yesterday was the winter solstice.
In the Northern Hemisphere, the winter solstice marks the day when our part of the world is tilted the farthest away from the sun we orbit, meaning that the sun never gets very high and that the time spent in darkness is the longest in the year. After the solstice, we tilt back toward the sun and the days—that is, the amount of sunlight per 24-hour period–get longer. The Southern Hemisphere has a solstice with its own longest day, since the earth doesn’t spin on a straight-up-and-down axis. In many prehistoric places, the solstice was a time of festivals and rituals (Stonehenge is a worship site for just such a thing), a day of lighting all the fires and chasing the dark away until the sun returned. Surviving the longest night was a feat of courage and endurance.
We don’t think as much about the solstice in the 21st century, especially in the so-called first-world countries, partly because we European types (and others; history is a complicated, bloody mess) stomped out most of the cultural and religious observances of native peoples and partly because, in an age of electricity, we can have light anytime we want—and in cities, we are never without it. But that fear of darkness, that hint of anxiety about the long stretch without sunlight, still exists in the back of our cultural minds—and not just for people with Seasonal Affective Disorder.
I began my solstice this year being picked up by a friend to go to a body shop and clean all of my possessions out of my totaled car, the second car I’ve lost since starting this degree. The time between the car begin hit (don’t worry, Reader, I’m fine; I wasn’t in it at the time) and this solstice goodbye was a long, frustrating, exhausting two weeks, and for right now I do not have a car or any money to handle the loss—now, three days before Christmas.
It’s no accident that the Christian festival of the Christ Mass falls so close to the winter solstice, and it’s not actually because Jesus was fortunate in birth timing. As far as the birth itself is concerned, it was more likely in the summer of about 3 B.C. or so than December of 1 A.D. The Christ Mass, though, that celebration of the infant Incarnation, was quite deliberately calculated. Some of it had to do with overriding Roman and pagan festivals, but fuller developments as Christianity spread north were mindful of this longest night.
Christianity is a light-saturated faith system: God shows up a lot in fire, Jesus is named the Light of the world that is never overcome by darkness, the first moment of creations is to declare that there shall be light. Christmas hangs out right next to this day of hours and hours of darkness exactly because this is when we need light most—this is our version of the prehistoric hope in the fires that burn till dawn, the prayer for the rising sun, we Christians who look to the star shining over Bethlehem.
A thing I feel it necessary to say, Reader, is that Christmas doesn’t fall on the solstice. There is a harmful and toxic strain of Christianity that requires cheerful acceptance at all times, often packaged in filtered Instagram photos proclaiming we are #TooBlessedtobeStressed. I’m sorry if I’m stepping on your optimistic toes, but stress and blessings are not mutually exclusive. The star shines over the city at night when it is dark enough to see its light. The Light shines in the darkness that does not overcome it but is also not obliterated by it. I now have no car, which sucks, and a friend has offered to give me his old one. Not “but;” “and.” The maddening, saddening, inconvenient reality of having to say goodbye to another car sits alongside the generosity and possibility of this new-to-me car I will meet in January. The longest night is four days before the Light is born.
So, Reader; on this first day of the sunlight hours beginning to lengthen again, let the night have its place in your day. In a healthy way—trust me, I do not advocate depression or despair—let yourself not be holly jolly for a moment. If you’re stressed, acknowledge it; and acknowledge the blessings, the light, the deep joy that abides.
Merry Christmas, Reader. May even your longest nights have the light of a star to guide you and thread through the velvety darkness.
The people walking in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness
a light has dawned. (Isaiah 9:2, NIV)