December twenty-first is winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. That makes the 22nd the first day of more sun! Let me spell that out. Beginning this week we’re on a path toward “sun breaks” and dry sidewalks, a time when people will take their fleeces off for long enough to wash them, a time that pet poop will dry out enough that your kids can scoop it off the lawn. Anyone who thinks that winter solstice couldn’t possibly have spawned the rich array of celebrations that we now call Yule and Christmas and Divali and Hannukkah and Kwanzaa never lived in Seattle.
Solstice means that within a few weeks the days will be perceptibly longer. It means that by mid- January, it will be easier to see the ice I’m scraping off the windshield with my battered health insurance card. It means that crocuses will come up through the grass if I hurry and get some bulbs planted, and the chickens will start laying again. It means that my crazy friends Sarah and Lee who bicycle to work in the dark and rain soon will be able to bicycle in just rain! Now that’s something to celebrate.
But even as I look forward to spring, I can’t help but think that mid-winter, in some ways, shows the human spirit at its best. Remarkably, we’ve managed to take our darkest days and turn them into some of our brightest. Without the lights and parties, December in Seattle would be a time for hibernation. (We Seattleites complain now about getting fat and sluggish from things like too many shrimp cocktails, or glasses of wine, or chocolate truffles. But think about how much more bear-like we’d get if all we did was huddle in bed with Netflix and Costco-sized bags of Sun Chips.) Bear bodies aside, hibernation would mean missing out on one of the best times of the year.
That is because the darkness of this season forces us to look into ourselves and our relationships for beauty and delight. Summer’s pleasures can make us lazy. But now, the garden is soggy with fallen leaves and plants that look like wilted lettuce. The grassy soccer fields are mud-wallows. The street trees are sticks, and hanging flower baskets are gone. The mountain trails are slick and nasty cold making high meadows inaccessible. With the outside world a grey shadow of itself, life becomes what we make it.
And so, make it we do. We seek out those we love. We bask in who loves us. We indulge our most superficial material impulses. We have more sex. And we ask ourselves what matters. It is no accident that many of the celebrations around solstice are embedded in spiritual traditions that invite us to examine not only our relationships with each other but our relationship to the universe and the Great Unknown. Many of us enter the new year, with its promise of new life, by making promises of our own: renewed commitments to be better parents or friends, re-engage in a spiritual quest, launch a new project, or simply take better care of ourselves.
Since the time our ancestors moved from being hunter-gatherers to being farmers, humans have been bound to an agricultural calendar and a cycle of hard work. During the spring, summer and fall, most of the time was consumed with creating food and shelter. In the bleak wastelands of winter, though, in the lull between planting seasons, came a time to laugh and sing and ask big questions. These days, few of us work the fields, but the rhythm of the year still shapes our lives, and the sun on our faces is one of life’s joys.
I wish the media hype-meisters would realize that most of us aren’t interested in squabbling about labels or who owns which dates or rituals, or who copied who when it comes to our celebrations. Most of us just aren’t inspired to spend this season staking out territory.
For one thing, all of our mid-winter celebrations emerged from earlier traditions that honored the cycle of the seasons: Christmas incorporates ancient rituals from Yule and Saturnalia. December 25 was chosen to celebrate the birth of Jesus because it already was celebrated as the birthday of dying and rising gods and of the sun. That we borrow from each other and build new on top of old foundations doesn’t make any of these traditions less powerful or delightful or sacred.
More importantly, we’re not interested in squabbling over turf because this season is about celebrating what we all have in common. In Seattle, one thing we share is a craving for the sun. But there’s far more than that: The value we place on love. Our delight in giving to each other. Our yearning for wonder. Our longing for fresh beginnings. I personally don’t care which tradition people call on at solstice time, as long as they keep those lights burning.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Subscribe to her articles at Awaypoint.Wordpress.com.
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