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Tag: winter solstice

out of darkness, the first radiant light

prayer for new year

imagine, long before telescopes and science tomes, what must have rumbled through the minds of those keeping watch on the heavens. how a time came when each day was darker and darker. when the hours of midnight-blue-toward-black blanketed farther and wider across the landscape. imagine the terror it might have stirred. are we edging toward endless seamless darkness?

and then, one day, at the darkest hour, a stirring happened, a stillness barely noticed. the waxing darkness ceased, the light broke through, and day by day, minute by minute, there was more of it. ebb and flow. wax and wane. addition and subtraction. the arithmetic of heaven, earth, and all creation.

and into that cosmos of push and pull, the ones who felt the spirit, the ones who believed the heavens were stirred by the hand of the Creator, they infused the darkness with the Christmas story. they made this the time of year when the Great Scripture opened in Nativity. a babe was born. in quietest, cast-aside manger. it’s a narrative whose shining light begins on the margins, celebrates the marginal. it is in every way the antithesis of splendor. it’s a straw bed where the moans and cries of labor are punctuated with the mews and bellows of the barnyard flock. where sheep and ox kept time.

it is a story that turns everything — darkness, splendor — on its head. the holiest one is born in a barn. there’s no room at the inn, not even for the one who brings the light. it’s a tale whose tropes never ever fade. year after year, they permeate hope. year after year, the dark hours before the solstice serve to quiet us. draw us in. invite us to explore the unlocked chambers of our hearts, the ones we sometimes never notice.

i’ve come to wrap myself in the little-noticed threads of Christmas, the quiet threads. the ones lost in the folderol and rump-a-pum-pum. the Christmas i love is all but invisible. you can’t unwrap it. it unfolds all on its own, deep in the stillest places in my heart. i do everything i can to amplify the quiet. i tiptoe down the stairs earlier and earlier. i make a point of opening the back door and stepping into the dawn. i shlep my tin can of birdseed across the frozen grass, under star-stitched dome, and thrill to the spilling song of all that sunflower and safflower funneling into the feeder. i simmer orange peel and cinnamon stick, clove and bay leaf, star anise too; my kitchen’s incense, calling me to quiet prayer.

on mornings like this one, i listen for the muffled thud of three distinct footfalls. it’s a sound that now comes but once a year. it’s a sound that means three beds — not two — are filled in this old house. i want nothing more than the sound of those footsteps, and the long day’s cacophony that follows. i want the whispered conversations at the kitchen table. and the hilarious ones that might punctuate hours round the Christmas tree. i want the sleepy-eyed listening in on the words weaving back and forth between two boys who call themselves brothers, and live and breathe that alliance as if it’s forged in titanium. i want to feed them, and make them laugh. i want to reach across wherever it is we are sitting and squeeze the flesh of their now-grown hands. i want to catch the glimmer in their eye when we pull to a stoplight in the night, and the street lamps catch the animation i can’t see across the long-distance-telephone miles.

if Christmas is the time when radiant light breaks through winter’s darkest night, i want to wrap myself in all its threads. if Christmas is love born anew, if it’s quiet — as quiet as the first one truly was — then all i want for Christmas is what burns bright and still inside me. and my prayer then would be to hold that light, to carry it long beyond the Christmastide. to animate my every day, to hold the stillness, the quiet, the kindled inextinguishable flame, and let its lumens fall across my winding path, illuminating my every hour.

for that, i beg the heavens. amen.

may your Christmas be blessed, and as quiet or as rambunctious as you wish. may your solstice hour carry you across the threshold from dark to first inkling of light. 

how do you make Christmas in the quiet of your blessed heart?

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my christmas captured: two mugs, not one, awaiting morning’s coffee. my sweet boy’s home…and these mugs are invitation to a long morning’s reverie….

chasing away the darkest night

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…