Updated December 21, 2016
Every year, in my part of the northern hemisphere, the leaves forsake the trees and the snow starts to fly in December. Nature is still. Dormant. Even the animals that remain active through the cold, dark months have changed—instead of seeking out mates and producing young, they’re in survival mode, scurrying around in search of food and shelter. Earth is tipped on its axis away from the sun’s warmth and light. The days grow shorter and shorter. When I wake, the sun is barely over the horizon. By late afternoon, it’s sinking low in the sky. This is December—a time for descending into darkness, for hunkering down, for settling in to ride out the bleak months.
But in late December, a small, miraculous thing occurs. On the eve of the solstice, we slip into the longest, darkest night of the year. At this time of year, many of us partake in traditions, most with ancient origins, designed to fight back against the darkness. Instead of surrendering to the gloom, we light our homes and hearths. Our towns put up seasonal decorations. We deck our halls in red and green, silver and gold. Candles glow in our windows. We wish each other peace and joy. We celebrate the love of family and friends. Christians celebrate the birth of the Son, the Light of the World, while Jews light the menorah to commemorate the miracle of a one-day supply of oil lighting the Maccabees’ lamps for eight days. Pagans place a Yule log on the fire to symbolize warmth and light and sustenance.
On the solstice, the longest night of the year, a tiny bit of cosmic magic will take place and gradually, day by day, the light will grow. Instead of our days getting progressively darker, now they will get progressively lighter. It will take a while for the earth to warm again, but warm it will, and spring will come, bringing new growth, followed by the warmth of summer, and eventually the harvest, and then the decline into autumn as nature grows quiet again and heads back into its long winter’s sleep.
You see, it doesn’t matter what we celebrate. No matter whether we’re saying “Merry Christmas,” “Happy holidays,” “Blessed Yule,” or “Happy Hanukkah”… nature will do what nature does, quietly and simply. And every year I’m in awe.