Each year before the winter solstice, I start thinking about just how smart those ancient pagans must have been. The Druids, the Romans, the Chinese and others knew something we’ve forgotten: that’s it’s important to mark the winter solstice with something more than a passing mention on the news. The return of the light deserves nothing less than major celebration, and most of the religions and societies on earth have done just that.
The Romans celebrated the winter solstice as the Saturnalia with public banquets, gift-giving, and a carnival atmosphere that overturned Roman social norms: gambling was permitted and masters provided table service for their slaves. For the ancient Chinese, the winter solstice called for grandiose ceremonies with court officials and troops, pipes and drums, and streets decorated with thousands of flags flapping in the stiff wind. Today’s more muted celebrations in China include visiting friends late into the night and enjoying special foods. A custom I find particularly charming consists of hanging an unfinished painting of a plum tree on a wall and each day painting one of its 81 flowers red. By the time it’s complete, the real buds outdoors are also in full bloom.
We can only imagine what the solstice meant to the ancient inhabitants of Britain who built Stonehenge and other mysterious structures, aligning them to receive the first or last rays of the sun on the shortest day of the year. One of these, called Maeshowe on the Orkney Islands, is a Neolithic burial mound shrouded in absolute darkness. But in the days leading up to the winter solstice, the last rays of the setting sun shine some 50 feet in, piercing the darkness all the way to its inner chamber and turning the place into a mysterious prism of light. Another monument right across from Maeshowe was designed so that on the winter solstice, the sun sets directly over it – while also reflecting into Maeshowe's inner chamber.
Today, we have no formal way of welcoming back the light. But we should. After six months of the northern hemisphere tilting ever farther from the sun, we begin to tilt back. The sun will rise a couple of minutes earlier and set a couple of minutes later each day. Every morning and evening it will conquer more and more of the night, until the summer solstice, when the dark shrinks to a negligible interval of just over eight hours.
Granted, the winter darkness has its charms. There’s the break from outdoor work; the brilliance of the stars in the dry cold; the warmth of candles and fires; and the guilt-free immersion in reading that I’ve missed when night came too late.
“The dark too blooms and sings,” said poet Wendell Berry. This is something I remind myself of regularly, even as I wait, very impatiently, for the winter solstice and the return of the light.