It is a habit for many of us – tying the ideas of light and life and those of darkness and death. It seems logical – sunlight provides the heat for the ground to thaw, the energy for plants to grow, and therefore the power for our biological systems. Light means summer and increase and flourishing. At the same time, darkness extends in the winter. It means cold and ice and hibernation. The winter solstice and many of the other winter holidays seem to celebrate light, as if we are calling out for it, summoning its return. In some ways, we fetishize it during these times: many of us adorn our homes with strings of electric lights, put up trees festooned with lights in our homes, light candles and fires.
But it seems to me that the winter solstice should be equally a time to celebrate the darkness. We often paint the darkness as a time when danger and evil prosper, when people can engage in malicious deeds without being observed. But more regularly, darkness is a time for rest, for sensuality, for stepping away from daily obligations. For those who live or lived agrarian lifestyles, the darkness of winter could be a time of hardship, but it was also a time of less work. Even in our modern societies, we feel the temptation in the winter to slow down, to ease up.
This is one of the reasons I love the time between Christmas and New Years. It is one of the few times when many people in this country step back from work and school, when regular obligations mostly stop. When we can stay up and sleep late. When we can take things at a slower pace. Of course, there are many others in our society who do not have that option. Because they are paid at an hourly wage, because they work in service jobs, they must work during this time as hard as or harder than they usually do.
But all of these factors point us to what there is to love about the darkness, and why we should celebrate it equally with the light. Light can bring warmth and growth, but too much light can also bring famine, scorched crops, and death. Too much darkness can hide dangers or prevent growth, but the right amount gives us space for sleep and rejuvenation.
On these cold midwinter nights, let us light our fires and celebrate their warmth, but let us also extinguish them and remember the value of darkness. As with so many things, it is only through their balance and entwining that we can lead lives in which we flourish and thrive.
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