By Barbara Mahany, Tribune Newspapers
Maybe, deep inside, it’s that we’re all still afraid of the dark. Or drawn to it.
Either way, as long as we’ve been two-legged, upright, and wise enough to wield a light-spitting wand (be it torch or battery-fueled flashlight), we’ve tiptoed toward the longest night, the winter solstice, with an odd mix of awe and wary eye over the shoulder.
Back in pagan Scandinavia, the Nordic merrymakers lit up Juul logs, slugged back mead, tended fires all night long, in hopes that their flaming fallen tree limbs would play backup to the barely working sun, or at least coax it through its feeble hours till solar reinforcements could get it up and blazing. Romans got downright riotous, decking halls with rosemary and laurel, burning lamps through the night, carrying on crazily, in hopes of warding off the spirits of darkness. And the Incas went so far as to try to tie the sun to a hitching post, a great stone column, to keep it from escaping altogether.
Fact is, from Amaterasu, in seventh-century Japan, to Ziemassvetk, in ancient Latvia, we’ve fine-tuned an alphabet of fetes to mark, to spook, to chase away the deepest darkness.
Poring through the December solstice litany, you find that, civilized or not, we humans have tried everything from feasting, gambling, pranks, gift-giving, nocturnal neighborly visits, drink, dress-up, more drink, fornication, dramaturgy, all-night vigil-keeping, and generally invoking every imaginable force of mortal pleasure to keep the Dark Side from vanquishing over everlasting Light.
It all boiled down to f-f-fear: Night would never end. Dawn would never come.
And when we succeeded, well, holy hallelujah, all sorts of whoopin’ and hollerin’ was in order.
The science behind this mid-winter darkness is simple, plain-angled geometry: The orb that is the globe doesn’t spin straight up and down, like some straight-back soldier, but rather Planet Earth is tipsy-topsy, and the winter solstice comes at the very moment the North Pole is tilted farthest from the bright star, sun. The shadow cast is never longer. Nor, the night.
Rather than trembling amid the darkness, we say, bring it on. Wrap yourself in the quietude it offers, counterpoint to December’s metastasizing madness.
For starters, it’s a fitting day to turn off not only the lights, but all things electric, writes Heather Fontenot, co-editor of Rhythm of the Home, an online magazine that honors seasonality and “slow family living.” Her winter solstice ritual is one of the loveliest we’ve encountered.
Quiet and dark are invited in, not shooshed away, come the day before the solstice . Candles are lit, a fire is kindled, winter lanterns line the walk.
It’s a day to coddle the winter critters, filling orange halves with peanut butter and birdseed, stuffing pine cones with the same. An afternoon’s walk is punctuated with a trail of birdseed sprinkled from winter-coat pockets. Supper by the fire is a simple soup and bread. Stories are read by firelight. Children are tucked in bed, while grown-ups keep vigil through the night.
Just before dawn, Fontenot wakes her children, who find sunshine bags beside their beds. The sacks, hand-sewn or not, are stuffed with oranges, nuts and golden-colored treasures. Everyone slips on a golden crown, and all tiptoe out into the dark for a predawn stroll, to watch the great orb rise once again.
Then it’s home for hot cocoa and steaming bowls of whatever warms a still-sleepy tummy.
With the sunshine safely back on course, it’s off to bed for a well-earned winter’s nap, albeit one in broad daylight.
Now that’s a solstice to light my way.
–as published in the chicago tribune, edited version here
2011’s longest night
This year, the actual astronomical moment of the winter solstice will occur at 12:30 a.m. EST Dec. 22/11:30 p.m. CST Dec. 21.
this is an essay i wrote for the winter pleasures sunday magazine of the tribune. i love the solstice ritual, and want to make it my own. the turning off of lights, kindling candles, waking children before dawn to take a solstice walk. to wake up to sunshine bags beside their bed. this piece belongs on the chair. and this is the version that was sent to all the tribune newspapers. but i wanted the chair to be a home for it too. maybe one of us will embrace the solstice in this simple illuminated way…..
merry solstice from our dark night to yours….
the picture up above is one i captured a few years ago on a snowy night when our backyard crabapple seemed nearly aflame in twinkling italian lights. my little one and i decided it was the perfect scene for this dark night…