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Winter Solstice – Celebrating the Dark

December 20, 2011

Image “It gets dark much too early,” my mother complained as I drove her home after her Sunday-afternoon-dinner visit.

“It will start getting better on Wednesday,” I assured her. “Wednesday is the Winter Solstice, the shortest day and longest night of the year. After that, we have a few more minutes of light every day.”

“Oh, good,” she sighed. “I don’t like the dark very much.”  She’s 87. Can’t say I blame her wanting to live in daylight.

Her comment made me think, though, about the dark. At this time of the year we adorn our homes with light of many colors; our offices, shops, and Main Streets are all aglow. Surrounding us in every public place are bells, and carolers. From mall to elevator to radio, familiar songs about angels, stars, and reindeer wrap themselves around us like old friends – or, for some of us, like cranky uncles we’d rather forget.

Wreaths, evergreen trees, holly, mistletoe, hot spiced cider, eggnog, gingerbread, dance across our senses, making the very air around us vibrant. Gifts to buy, cards to send, decorating and baking to do . . . we rush through the short days and into the long nights, caught between the exuberance of the season and feeling like rats trapped in a maze of to-do lists. This is our modern day culture’s set of rituals to fend off the dark.

Our ancestors, as far back as we have records or myths, have always engaged in ritual at this time of greatest darkness. From the Mesopotamian festival to help the god Marduk (a sun god) tame the monsters of chaos (who, of course are strongest in the dark) to Nordic and Celtic traditions which form the bases for most of our rituals today, humans faced with lengthening darkness have always sought ways to bring back the light.

Why do we have such fear of the dark that we need to design elaborate rituals to combat it? What is there about the dark that is so unsettling to the human psyche? And why, at this time of year, are regular light bulbs not enough? Those questions rumbled through my mind this afternoon as I wandered our land asking the spirits of the forest where they wanted us to hold our Winter Solstice ritual. I walked in sunshine – the constant winter rains for which the Northwest Coast is famous have paid only a brief visit so far this year. No damp forest duff, no snowy silence, just the familiar crackle of autumn leaves under my feet. The paths, usually bright with new moss by this time, were still bare and brown so I could see hoof prints where the deer had passed on their way to the meadow.

The swing called me. A bench swing hanging from a Douglas Fir at the edge of the grove where chanterelles pop up their golden heads in autumn, it overlooks the estuary where geese, ducks, loons, and sometimes a Great Blue Heron or two like to fish. The wind sprites like to visit there and voices of the Nature Sprits we call Fairies are strong. So I sat, let the afternoon breeze clear the overloaded synapses in my mind, watched the water, listened to the trees, and followed my breath to silence. As the sun sank below the horizon and the gray “between time” crept across the sky, glimmers of understanding popped out with the first stars.

We mortals believe our lives are lived in light, that what we see is real. In the dark, when our eyes can’t be our guides, our imaginations populate surrounding space with monsters and demons drawn from our fears. What’s that crackling in the underbrush? What’s the thump outside my door? If I sit quietly and wait, will it eat me? At what point in our lives did our relationship with the unknown – the dark – become one of fear rather than anticipation? When did we turn our creativity to imagining monsters in the dark, rather than Angels – or Fairies?

Do you remember a time when the dark was a place of magic? Where your imagination greeted the rustling in the bushes with the hope of seeing the King Stag or a unicorn? When the thump outside your door could be Santa’s bag as he lifted it from his sleigh? Perhaps you are one who remembers your own light sufficiently to know that there is no difference between what exists around you in darkness or daylight. Perhaps you know that what you see in daylight is also with you in the night and that the unseen worlds that manifest in the darkness surround you in the sunlight as well. Perhaps you are one who strides into the unknown dark of the future with relish, rather than looking over your shoulder to the past you can see. The conditioning you’ve received in our modern world tells you that what your eyes see is real, that what they don’t, is not. Does your heart remember what it knew before your mind told it not to believe in fairy tales?

This year, on the longest night, return to what your heart knows and celebrate the dark. Extinguish the lights, even the hearth fire, and sit for a moment in the stillness and solitude of dark. Smell the forest duff or the musty carpet. Taste pungent pine needles or the lingering residue of supper hanging in the air. Listen to a mouse scuttling through leaves or your refrigerator motor kicking in. Feel your breath as it winds its way into your nostrils, to your lungs, and back out again. Feel your heart beating. Do it all with your eyes open because, when we close our eyes, we’re not really in the dark, we’re just turned inward and disconnected.

As you sit in the dark with your senses tuned to the space around you, find your home in the dark. Claim your ability to be awake in the darkness and to discern through your senses what occupies the space beyond your eyes. Rescue the dark from the monsters with which you have populated it. If you allow yourself this courageous process, you’ll find that the only light you really need is already inside. Then sing to the dark, to the magic it holds. Only then are you ready to reach out to the sun, to let him know that there’s room for him in your heart, that it’s safe for him to return.

The peace and joy that comes with befriending the dark and finding your own light is the gift of this season. Light candles, rekindle the hearth fire, turn the twinkling holiday lights back on; join hands with friends, sing, eat, drink, and be merry, knowing that your celebration comes not from fear of the dark but from honoring its place in the cycle of life.

As Earth holds her breath in the dark silence of Winter
reach for the light that glows in your heart
and sing softly to all you love.

 –Bridget Wolfe



6 Comments leave one →
  1. Jen Henry permalink
    December 21, 2011 9:31 am

    Absolutely Beautiful. What an interesting and thought provoking way to approach the darkness. Thank you, I shall remember these words and teach them.

    • December 21, 2011 10:37 am

      Thanks for the kind words. It’s always a treat to think about what underlies the things we take for granted. Bright Blessings for the holidays. Bridget

  2. kate murphy permalink
    December 21, 2011 12:02 pm

    what a wonderous way to look at the night! your words most certainly remind us not to be afraid of the dark, and very eloquently penned.
    Personally I see the evening as a warm cloak wrapping itself around me. I have always enjoyed sitting in my small garden at night, just listening to the sounds around me, taking in the fragrances of the different seasons, watching the stars and always hoping for a glimpse of the fairy world!
    thank you for sharing your insight
    happy celebrations to you!!!

    • December 21, 2011 5:52 pm

      Thanks for reading and responding. It’s not that there aren’t things in the dark to be afraid of – just no more than during the daylight! I feel about the dark as you do – a time to let my non-visual senses loose to play. And, if I’m going to imagine things in the dark, I’m much more inclined toward Fairies than monsters. Bright Blessings on this lovely, dark, night. Bridget

  3. January 19, 2012 2:48 am

    love the site and the blog look forward to seeing and reading more

    • January 19, 2012 10:29 am

      Thank you very much for stopping by. Look forward to your comments in the future.

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