A warm front blew in on big winds and knocked down tons of the snow. I hope that today’s above freezing temperature and sunshine melts the ice left behind, and cleans the slate for the next winter storm to arrive in time for Christmas. Today is the Solstice, that time when the sun stands still in the sky. Like ancient cultures, we hold on to the faith that the sun stops in time, before there is too much darkness for it to recover from. The darkness feels very deep this year with so much anger and hatred in the daily news and the fear for our world’s future.
I’m often comforted, in some simplistic way, that “things have always been bad.” When I read the stories and myths about how humans experienced the Winter Solstice, it’s impossible to appreciate how profound their fear must have been to lose the light and be at the abyss of starvation and dreadful cold. Powerless to a natural order they did not understand, they believed that the sun needed human assistance to avoid being devoured by the darkness. With human and animal sacrifices, prayers and rituals, and fires through the night, they did their best to save themselves.
We do our own bit with lighted Christmas trees, candles, parties and celebrations together. But, everybody I know this year, has scaled way back, kept things simple. Weeks ago, I created a Christmas card to send out, but when they came back from the printer yesterday, they felt too cheerful, too nostalgic, and just too dishonest. The ancients would never have given up their agency so readily.
It’s our tradition on the Winter Solstice to walk out on the north edge of the lake at sunset and look for remaining light to leave the sky. This could be the first year we’ve actually seen the sun, but it will be cold as the air comes in off the water. It feels important to be in that cold, to be still and silent, to let the darkness go deep. And, perhaps, “make an oblation to all you’ve lost” as Peter Mayer sings in his song, “The Longest Night”, before we slide into the merriment of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. We leave a candle burning all through the night on our dining room table. Ever since I discovered Tom Hennen’s poem, “Sheep in the Winter Night”, I place the three little miniature sheep I bought from a local artist next to the candle. Their wool comes from sheep in Idaho and the flame illuminates them so that “their wooly backs were full of light gathered on summer pastures”. It reminds me of the tiny spark of light that’s always there in the darkness. As Michael Meade wrote in his essay, “Bringing Back the Light”, “the light we discover in our own depths is a speck of the original star, a spark of life that connects us to each other and to the Soul of the World.”
Sheep in the Winter Night
by Tom Hennen
Inside the barn the sheep were standing, pushed close to one
another. Some were dozing, some had eyes wide open listening
in the dark. Some had no doubt heard of wolves. They looked
weary with all the burdens they had to carry, like being thought
of as stupid and cowardly, disliked by cowboys for the way they
eat grass about an inch into the dirt, the silly look they have
just after shearing, of being one of the symbols of the Christian
religion. In the darkness of the barn their woolly backs were
full of light gathered on summer pastures. Above them their
white breath was suspended, while far off in the pine woods,
night was deep in silence. The owl and rabbit were wondering,
along with the trees, if the air would soon fill with snowflakes,
but the power that moves through the world and makes our
hair stand on end was keeping the answer to itself.