“The winter solstice celebrates the return of hope to our land as our planet experiences the first slow turn toward greater daylight…. Pause now to sit in silence in the darkness of this space. Let this space be a safe enclosure of creative gestation for you.”
From The Circle of Life by Joyce Rupp and Macrina Wiederkehr.
For at least 12,000 years humans have watched for and commemorated the winter solstice. It has pragmatic significance because it notes the start of the depth of winter and begins the countdown to spring and the timing for planting crops. It is a time of darkness and stillness and rest in the natural world. It is also the moment when light and the promise of new life start to return.
The life and death significance of the winter solstice led people to imbue this time of the year with cultural and spiritual meaning, too. It is observed as a time of rest and reflection; a time of promise and renewal. It symbolizes the rebirth of an inner light. It has traditionally been a time of celebration and gatherings, a time of convening for families.
Those of us living in electrified societies have lost some of our connections to the winter solstice, its consequences and meanings. Lights burning through the night mitigate the darkness, a complex food system keeps (most of) us well fed, and conditioned spaces shield us from the harshness of the season.
In many ways that’s a good thing, for sure. No one wants to freeze or starve during the winter, and it’s nice to do something other than go to sleep when it gets dark. Thanks to lights and food and heat, we do a good job keeping the celebration and holiday and gathering part of the solstice season alive and thriving.
But perhaps these buffers have cost us something, too. Without the constantly in-our-face darkness of the season we lose conditions conducive to stillness and rest, closeness and reflection. It is too easy to be busy and get caught up in the hubbub of the holiday season. The “spirit of the season” gets crowded out with noise and distraction. When we notice this, it is natural to miss it and regret it. If we are fortunate or persistent we may carve out for ourselves and our loved ones time for quietude, closeness, and reflection; a practice that has served human souls for millennia.
For the sake of personal and family wellbeing, I think it worthwhile to be mindful of the natural, cultural, and spiritual significance of this time of year and the lessons it teaches. We can create conditions where darkness and stillness generate insights that emerge from within. We can reflect on the promise of the coming of light and the promise of rebirth and new life in the perpetual cycle of seasons.
Creating space in our lives for moments of stillness, insight, and reflection at this time of year nurtures a mental and emotional state that allows us to fully embrace the meaning of the season. I like the way British poet Edith Sitwell describes it: “Winter is the time for comfort, for good food and warmth, for the touch of a friendly hand and for a talk beside the fire: it is the time for home.”