Today is the shortest day of the year. In my part of the country, the sun (if it appears at all on a gray, wet day of our rainy season) is predicted to come up at 6:51 am and to set at 4:45 pm—more than 14 hours of darkness.
An Australian friend who now lives in the U.S. recently remarked she'd miss the usual traditions of Christmas, such as barbecuing at the beach. It hit me then how many of northern hemisphere Christmas images are inextricably associated with cold, darkness, and death. Starry skies. Icicles with deadly points. Trees barren of leaves, looking dead. Snowmen with eyes of coal. A matchgirl lying dead in an alley. Tiny Tim on the brink of death. Mittens and knit caps and red, chapped cheeks. No wonder there are carols with names such as "In the Bleak Midwinter" and Christmas songs, traditional and modern, set to melancholy melodies: "The Coventry Carol," "The Old Year Now Away Is Fled," "What Child Is This?" "Mary Did You Know?" "I'll Be Home for Christmas," "Blue Christmas," and "So This Is Christmas."
Many cultures around the world and through history have had a midwinter festival on or near the winter solstice. Often, this festival was to encourage the sun to come back, to celebrate its expected return, or to celebrate a historical event (such as the birth of Jesus) whose supposed timing was moved to coincide with midwinter. People could feast because the fields had been harvested, animals that could not be fed through the winter had been slaughtered, and wine, beer, and cider were being fermented.
In America, as the year comes to an end, we mourn those who did not make it through the year and long for those far away in time or distance who won't be with us for the holidays.
And yet, despite the darkness, a new year begins. The sun returns. Grief fades a little with time. In spring, the grass will green, the crops will grow, and we'll make new friends before the solstice rolls around again.
by Emily Dickinson
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune—without the words,
And never stops at all,
And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.
I've heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.
I wish you all a wonderful 2011.