NASHVILLE — Midway through December, in the midst of an unseasonable warm spell, I sent a text to the gang: “Shall we meet on our deck around 6:30?”
These are the friends with whom we raised a collective 10 children, the friends who have seen us through losses big and small, worries big and small, joys and triumphs big and small, and whom we have seen through the same kinds of losses and worries, joys and triumphs. This year it wasn’t safe to gather indoors, so our social life has been entirely weather dependent. When it’s 65 degrees outside in December, with no hint of rain, we will find a way to get together.
That night there was only the barest sliver of a moon, which disappeared beneath deep cloud cover early on, and all the stars with it, but there was plenty of light even in that profound darkness.
My husband had built a fire in the big iron bowl we’ve set in the middle of our deck, and one friend led us through Hanukkah prayers as she lit candles she’d brought from home. The colored lights from our Christmas tree gleamed through the windows, merging with the light from the menorah and the campfire at the center of it all. For a few moments, I forgot what a hard year it has been.
It was a quiet, murmuring kind of evening, and I made some remark I can’t remember exactly, something about how comforting it is that this season of lights always coincides with the darkest time of the year.
“That’s not a coincidence,” said the historian in the group.
Dec. 21 marks the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, the night when there are more minutes of darkness than on any other night of the year. Afterward, days will begin to lengthen, with more light than the day before, until the summer solstice arrives on June 20, and nights begin to grow longer again.
Since long before Jews began to celebrate Hanukkah and Christians began to celebrate Christmas, ancient peoples across the Northern Hemisphere marked the arrival of the winter solstice. It’s not hard to imagine why they felt compelled to perform rituals meant to summon the sun or rejoice in its rebirth.
We are mortal creatures with no fangs and no claws and no fur, shivering in the cold, vulnerable to predators lurking in the darkness. Why wouldn’t we pray for the return of light and warmth?
Modern pagans still celebrate the solstice, but this year has brought fresh reminders to everyone else of just how close we remain to the earliest peoples, even deep into the 21st century. As we live with the fear of a rapidly spreading virus for which there is no cure and watch the apotheosis of political tribalism unfold on the national stage, we are forced to admit that we are nearer to the ancients than we may have cared to believe.
And yet there is light, even now.
Vaccines that protect against the coronavirus are making their way across the globe, the result of unprecedented ingenuity and cooperation. The president of the United States is still trying to undermine the integrity of the November election, but the Senate majority leader has acknowledged reality, and that’s not nothing. (It used to be nothing, true, but in a party whose leader demands primitive fealty to an imaginary reality, it’s now worthy of remark.)
The global climate catastrophe is still unfolding at a rate that, left unchecked, will wreak planetary devastation, but there are signs that the global community is beginning to take carbon reduction seriously. If these nations keep their promises, and if President-elect Joe Biden honors his own, we might manage yet to stave off the very worst disasters. The next 10 years will tell.
First there is winter to get through, for the solstice signals not only a time of increasing light but also the start of a new season.
The comfort of friends and extended family will be harder to come by as outdoor gatherings are curtailed by the cold. (That’s if we are lucky and things go as they should in winter, despite the fact that the next 10 years are projected to be the warmest decade on record.) The coronavirus vaccine, which brings so much hope with it, will take months to be fully deployed in the general population, a logistical challenge that means our unfathomable deaths, already over 300,000, will continue to mount in the months to come — potentially doubling if mask and distancing mandates ease too soon.
Through it all, the sky will begin to brighten earlier in the morning, and the light will begin to linger longer in the evening. It will give us hope and help us to hold on.
The day is coming when we will sit around tables together again and carelessly offer one another a taste of what’s on our plates. We will go to the movies again and read books among strangers in coffeehouses again and sing out loud at church services and concerts again. We will tell jokes in the break room at work again and blow out the candles on our birthday cakes again. We may even trust our government again.
That’s the great promise of the solstice: Like steadfast friends who see us through everything a cold world can throw our way, the solstice reminds us, every year, that light is coming. It tells us that darkness is never here to stay.
Margaret Renkl is a contributing opinion writer who covers flora, fauna, politics and culture in the American South. She is the author of the book “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss.”
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