Lead, Kindly Light

Winter Solstice

Today is the winter solstice for the northern hemisphere. It’s not necessarily the first day of winter, however, and flatly declaring it as such robs the day of all its beautiful symbolism and wonder. Winter isn’t defined by the angle of the sun in relation to us, but by weather and local custom. The solstice itself actually only lasts for a moment–when the sun’s daily maximum elevation in the sky is the lowest–so the day itself was traditionally known as midwinter. Do you recall the play A Midsummer Night’s Dream? The name is a reference to the celebration of St John’s Day or Midsummer Eve, marking the summer solstice. Midwinter and midsummer have significance not because they’re the start of seasons–how can mid- something be the start instead of the middle, eh?–but because they mark astronomical reversals.

Up until midsummer, the days are growing longer. The sun rises earlier and sets later. Then the trend is reversed so that the days grow shorter and the nights longer. Even as the average temperature keeps increasing through the rest of summer, daylight is already being lost. It’s like a memento mori provided by the earth’s axial tilt. It’s the little death in the midst of the warmest, brightest season.

Midwinter is the opposite. Even if it’s getting colder and we have weeks–or months if you’re unlucky like me–of frigid weather ahead of us, the sun is returning. The world is renewing even if it’s blanketed under ice. In the darkest, longest night we witness a rebirth and hope keeps burning through the remainder of winter.

We speak of being enlightened when we gain new wisdom. Light grows the plants that we eat, providing us with the air we breath. Light darkens our skin with its kiss and builds our bones strong. Light is life and light is a goal in and of itself. From my window, I watch the snow fall and the neighbor’s miniature horse frolic in the frosty gloom and even knowing how cold and dark it’ll soon be, I’m comforted.

The light is returning. This is not the start of winter, but the beginning of its death.

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