It was the longest night. People gathered from near and far, in small groups and large, to share their fears and grief and the darkness in their hearts.” - Julie Middleton
In our Western, modern, or post-modern, lives, it is nearly impossible to recapture the sense that our ancestors must have felt, sitting on hilltops, or cowering in caves, thinking that the sun was dying, disappearing because its rising and setting was so low on the line of the horizon. We can only imagine the questions that might have swirled around those hills and caverns: Where did the sun go? How can we tempt it to return? It was a world filled with dark mystery.
And then, after years, generation, patterns emerged. The sun disappeared, but reappeared in ways that were observable, even predictable. The sun’s travels were marked first in story and song, then in stone hewn from the ground. Ancient observatories and monuments were raised, marking the precise moment when the sun would return. The solstice was less about calling out in fear and despair, imploring the gods to return the sun to its home. Instead, it was a time to celebrate the rhythms and cycles of the world of nature, to revel in the changing seasons, to see this present moment in relation to the very movements of the heavenly bodies — a time filled with awe.
Over years, the solstice was all but forgotten. The marking of the sun’s return was absorbed into religious and cultural traditions with other objectives that found the timing of the solstice convenient. Hanukkah and Christmas both “borrowed” the solstice for their celebrations. And the natural world ceased to mystify or worry us in the way it did our ancient ancestors. It even ceased to amaze us. Instead, we looked to insulate ourselves from effects of the natural world. At first, shelter gave us security — but then it became a quest for comfort. Now with light and heat supplied at the touch of a switch, the solstice passes by, unnoticed by most. It has long ceased being a cause of fear. Neither is it regarded with awe. The solstice is like a memento of a former life, lost in the back of a closet — unseen and forgotten.
But in letting the solstice pass by, we do more than leave behind some of our ancient history. We also turn our backs on the season of winter. Each year the television and radio media become more adamant in portraying the winter season as an enemy to be feared, fought and defeated. Winter, we are told, is to be endured.
Yet in wishing away the season of winter, we also wish away “wintering,” the passing of winter — the time when we humans might follow the rhythms of the natural world, to view the world from a different perspective, maybe even to marvel at its mysteries, and experience again some of the awe. Here are Annie Dillard’s words on wintering from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek:
Outside, everything has opened up ... Everywhere paths unclog ... The woods are acres of sticks ... When the leaves fall the striptease is over; things stand mute and revealed. Everywhere skies extend, vistas deepen, walls become windows, doors open ... All that summer conceals, winter reveals ... It is winter proper ... I bloom indoors in the winter like a forced forsythia; I come in to come out. At night I read and write, and things I have never understood become clear; I reap the harvest of the rest of the year’s planting.
All that summer conceals, winter reveals. Vistas deepen. This is what we miss when we are too anxious to push away the winter, when we forget the gifts it has to offer us.
If we bundle ourselves up against the wind, ignoring the dire warnings of the prognosticators, we might see our earth home with different eyes, even listen to her with different ears. And, when we are forced to stay inside, perhaps we can discover new aspects of our own all-too-hidden lives. We come in to come out. Things we have never understood become clear.
The Rev. Alison Cornish is the pastor of the in Bridgehampton.