I love the long, dark, soft nights from November through January. Dusk starts to fall just past 4pm in the depths of winter and by the time the bus gets to my stop at 5:45 it is pitch black. I enter into the velvet darkness and slowly walk the half mile home. Owls start calling to one another soon after nightfall. Last night one landed in an oak tree just as I was coming up my drive. I saw its silhouette against the darkening sky before it flew away.
The ancient Earth festivals celebrated the longest night during the Winter Solstice (December 21st) by honouring the dark and celebrants lit candles and bonfires to symbolize the return of the Sun and the longer days stretching towards Springtime and the Summer Solstice (June 21st). When these holidays were Christianized, the figure of Jesus replaced the Sun and fire as holy symbols and the darkness itself was banished to the realm of Satan and sin.
Dark has become synonymous with bad in our language, but darkness is needed in order for life to rest, repair and renew itself. Darkness is a crucible in which something new can be created. Even in the middle of winter when the world looks barren and dead, down in the dark earth, bulbs are forcing their green shoots towards the light.
Take a deep breath and look darkness in the eye if you want to loosen its hold over you. Light a fire if you can, or a bonfire and rekindle the magic of glowing embers on a cold night. Light candles and enjoy the gentle light and flickering shadows. Sleep longer and eat slow-cooking, substantial, savoury foods that satisfy your soul as well as your craving for extra winter padding. Wrap up warm and go out into the cold, especially at night. Find an unlit place and experience the beauty of a frosty starlit night.
We need the light and we need the darkness too.
Here are some words by two of my favorite authors writing about childhood Christmas memories in which they recognize the mystery and beauty of the night sky.
From ‘A Christmas Memory’ by Truman Capote
“Buddy, are you awake?” It is my friend, calling from her room, which is next to mine; and an instant later she is sitting on my bed holding a candle. “Well, I can’t sleep a hoot,” she declares. “My mind’s jumping like a jackrabbit. Buddy, do you think Mrs. Roosevelt will serve our cake at dinner?” We huddle in the bed, and she squeezes my hand I-love-you. “Seems like your hand used to be so much smaller. I guess I hate to see you grow up. When you’re grown up will we still be friends?” I say always. “But I feel so bad, Buddy. I wanted so bad to give you a bike. I tried to sell my cameo Papa gave me. Buddy” – she hesitates as though embarrassed- “I made you another kite.” Then I confess that I made her one, too; and we laugh. The candle burns too short to hold. Out it goes, exposing the starlight, the stars spinning at the window like a visible caroling that slowly, slowly daybreak silences.
From ‘A Child’s Christmas in Wales’ by Dylan Thomas
Always on Christmas night there was music. An uncle played the fiddle, a cousin sang “Cherry Ripe,” and another uncle sang “Drake’s Drum.” It was very warm in the little house. Auntie Hannah, who had got on to the parsnip wine, sang a song about Bleeding Hearts and Death, and then another in which she said her heart was like a Bird’s Nest; and then everybody laughed again; and then I went to bed. Looking through my bedroom window, out into the moonlight and the unending smoke-colored snow, I could see the lights in the windows of all the other houses on our hill and hear the music rising from them up the long, steady falling night. I turned the gas down, I got into bed. I said some words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept.