Solstice. Just before Christmas and our tree is up, shining with lights in the darkness which is profound, this shortest day of the year.
I arose in the darkness and sat with it this morning, kept a close eye on it as it gave way to dawn. I plan to bundle up and walk in the woods today. The day may be overcast—but it will be far from gloomy in there. Close, dim perhaps; but not depressing. The woods at the darkest time of the year feel majestic, full of secrets.
Later I’ll listen to music, maybe even get out my guitar and play. I should bake something too, in the longstanding tradition of my people at Christmas, a rite that I’m certain goes back much further than I can see, beyond my mother and my grandmothers, beyond the women whose names are on the recipes handed down to me: Martha, Diatha, Leah, Opal.
It’s still a mystery, my descent from my ancestors, how my life is linked to so many generations before me, as life itself is a mystery, how the light comes back every year, finds us again and the new year begins. It’s just the Christian calendar, a Chinese-American friend said to me once. She was referring to the millennium, as I recall, and dismissing it as a purely Christian invention, and of course she was right—at least, about the year 2000. But the Christian calendar is overlaid on something more ancient, the Gregorian on the Julian, both of them working from the sun and starting the new year soon after the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice—observed and celebrated in pre-Christian times. I think of the standing pillars of Stonehenge, arranged to frame the arc of the sun on its shortest journey of the year and constructed at least 4,000 years ago. During the middle ages many western European countries actually started the new year on December 25th, marking the birth of Christ and closer to winter solstice. (When reforming the calendar and lopping off days to get back into alignment with the sun, Pope Gregory held onto the Roman convention of the New Year beginning on January 1.)
Like the calendar many of the holiday festivities, the decorations and the carols are older than Christianity. Now and then I peek behind the “Christmas” veneer and see my pagan ancestors. Celebrating Yule, for instance—it’s not a Christian festival, but the word’s been co-opted as if it means Christmas. I listen to the carols and ancient voices call out to me, singing about the greenwood as if it’s a very real, specific place; singing of dawn breaking and deer running. They had a lot to say and to sing about, it seems, at this shortest day of the year, even without the addition of a prophet from the middle east.
Some of the Christian lyrics build on the happy spirit of revelry (in fact carols were originally dances) and call out for beneficence, and for understanding among people, and who can argue with or complain of that? Other lyrics simply recount the Christmas story: the star, the kings, the birth of Christ; and often each bit of story is tied to something still green and growing, like holly, that one might find on a winter ramble in the wood.
And I come back to where I began: Today I want to walk in the woods, whether dim or shot through with the rays of the low-sailing sun, where people for thousands of years have felt close to the mystery, the unknowable. The trees that outlive us, the ground we will return to, the bits of green that always survive the frost. The rising of the sun, and the running of the deer.
Our roots are long, long as the shadows this time of year.