The Darkness of Winter Solstice
This time of year I will be celebrating the Darkness. Like my foremothers before me. Call it what you will and celebrate with whatever traditions that you see fit; it is not just Light that we celebrate in the deepest part of the year but also Darkness.
In the Northern Hemisphere the ‘bleak mid-winter’ comes to us between December the 20th and December 23rd, usually falling on the 21st or 22nd. At this time the sun in his shallow arc skims close to the ground, as if he is weary of the old year and can only rise with a stooping gait from the horizon before he grows too weak and must drag his celestial body back down into the depths of the earth. And yet it is at this time of year, when the cloak of darkness enfolds us that we remember how important Darkness is.
Our ancestors understood the Darkness better than we do because they did not live in this false environmental bubble that we do today. They had no electric light bulbs, no tame artifice of light. They had nothing but daylight, moonlight or the wild and living element of fire and so their life-rhythms ebbed and flowed with that of nature. They were part of the rhythm itself.
Winter is a time that the Earth sleeps, it lays dormant and yet not still, for winter storms rage like a tyrant across its surface and the cold creeps through stones and bones. In bygone days it would have been a time to hunker down, to eat the flesh of animals whose lives could not be sustained over the harsh winter, to consume what the ground had yielded during the harvest and to stay close to the safety of the fire (does this all sound familiar?).
The evergreen may have been seen as magical and regarded with a certain reverence for living when other plants died. An Otherworldly symbol of hope, touched with the power of the deities. With the glossy, barbed leaf and scarlet poisonous berry Holly was protected from the dark entities of the season, while the mystical Mistletoe did not ever dip its toe-roots into the sleeping earth and therefore was protected through the winter by clinging about the branches of lifeless, fruitless trees. It did not need to rely on Mother Earth for life.
And yet our ancestors understood that without this time of Darkness there would be no time of Light. If we work tirelessly with no break we cannot do our best work. We become exhausted and cannot reach our fullest potential. So it is with the Earth – she too must rest. She has yielded her harvest, animals have grown fatted on the lush vegetation that has sprung from her and now she must slumber. But come the shortest day of the year, she will be woken.
(Credit: Photograph by Cyril Byrne – courtesy of The Irish Times)
Our ancestors built great mounds of earth, within them long, narrow ‘chambers’. During the sunrise of the darkest day, a shaft of the Sun’s light would enter an opening in the mound and would penetrate a chamber. This copulation of Heaven and Earth would be a beginning. The conception. Light had fertilized Dark. From this day onwards the Light of the Sun would grow stronger again and deep beneath the surface the womb of the Earth Mother would start to warm. Nine months later a harvest would be yielded. They knew of fertility, they knew of the cycles of life. First the ground must be ready, then the seeds can be sown, then the seeds must unfurl beneath the fertile soil, shooting roots downward for nourishment and stability, it is only then can they sprout upward and break the surface. The deep Darkness is required for life every bit as much as Light. Our ancestors knew of this wisdom.
In modern times and in modern cultures we do not like the Dark. We have light at the switch of a button, our rhythms are no longer that of nature. We pretend that we are separate from nature and that we can control and manipulate all aspects of it. We celebrate the Light because it makes us productive and it is pleasant. Darkness has become synonymous with ‘wrong’, ‘bad’ or ‘evil’ because its uncertainty frightens us, much as Light has become synonymous with ‘rightness’ and ‘goodness’ because it is something more comfortable.
We forget that we also require Darkness. It is not inherently evil, bad or wrong. In fact, it is necessary.
We need times of rest, times of introspection and introversion. We need times when storms rage and ravage our bodies and minds we need times when cold creeps through our hearts. We need to doubt, to be rocked to our core, to question ourselves and the systems that we live within. When unpleasantness is found we often want to blinker ourselves, to turn our backs or close our eyes and block our ears to it. We want the Light without the Darkness. So many people equate Light with the ‘warm and fuzzy’ feeling we get when everything is ‘nice’. So many people speak of ‘light and love’ and seek only those states of being. Being Light. Being Love. But how can we embody Light or Love if we haven’t experienced the other? Darkness is something we must all experience as human beings, as living creatures, as individuals intrinsically connected with all other life upon (and beyond) the earth. Why do we believe we should be exempt from it?
A seed placed in the light will not grow. It does not crack open and come to life. It is merely a tiny grain of potential. It requires time in the nurturing darkness first. If we only look for ‘Light’ and ignore the ‘Darkness’ in ourselves and in our world we too cannot grow and reach our potential. We live wilfully blinded by our own state of perpetual false Light. Nothing changes for the better.
So this is why, at this time of year, it is not merely Light that we celebrate. We celebrate the joy of balance, of cycles, of rest, of awakening and of the necessity of Darkness.