“Yalda Night” (photo: S.Ali.Al Mosawi/Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons)
“”[W]hile we can’t stop the earth from turning, we can choose to experience each revolution so deeply and completely that even the dark becomes luminous…”
—Starhawk, in The Spiral Dance
At first glance, it might seem odd to spend the longest night of the year celebrating the return of the sun. It’s dark. The days are short and cold. The warmth of the summer sun seems hidden in the fuzziness of your memory as you sit huddled around the wood stove, wrapped in a blanket and wearing two pairs of old, faithful socks.
For many of our Pagan ancestors, this was the essence of the winter solstice mystery.
With lives rooted deeply in the rhythm of the seasons, they were dependent upon the reliability of their gods and goddesses to once again return the sun and its greening of the Earth. This night, the turning point from darkness to light, was more than just a metaphorical reflection on the meaning of winter; it was a choice between life or death — confronted with dances, songs, and other offerings given through the long, dark night to the Divine to coax the return of the sun gods to bless the Earth once again.
Now, sitting here at my computer typing up thoughts on my own understanding of the solstice eve, I’m a bit of a scientist. I know that tomorrow morning the sun is going to rise whether I stay up all night or crash deeply into a loud snore within minutes of writing this sentence. I understand how the seasons work and trust in their consistency.
Somehow, though, our society has lost touch with this understanding of cycle in its other expressions. When we feel alone and unpartnered, misunderstood or misaligned, can we hold the vigil, even then, chanting and dancing in our otherwise silent lives, confidently awaiting the return of love? When we struggle to make ends meet, staring anxiously at the bank balance or pink slip, can we remember to keep our dreams awake, and refuse to hand them over to the darkness? When we are holed up in the depths of our own misery and desperation, seeing no discernible way out and unable to find enough oxygen for our smothered souls to breathe, how about then? In that heart-crushing place of unparalleled black emptiness, can we, even then, sing songs to the unseen light, trusting in its promise to once again return, in perfect timing, as the seasons of our lives flow?
Tonight, my children are playing in front of a tree full of twinkling lights. A loaf of wheat bread is almost done baking, and spiced apple cider simmers on the stove. Music is playing in my living room, and my children are dancing wildly with the shadows cast by a deliciously scented candle. We’ve exchanged simple gifts, and, in just a few hours, we’ll all bundle up and go outside to stand in awe of the full moon and its beauty.
Through these simple traditions, I’m creating memories and strengthening our family. More than that, though, I’m teaching them how to create a special, warm, bright space in the midst of the freezing darkness. I’m teaching them how to live. I’m teaching them how to honor and trust in the natural cycles of the Earth — cycles that affect not just the planet and seasons, but their lifetimes, their friendships, and their journeys.
Tonight, we talk about the cold, dark, fallow time of the winter, and the return of the sun as it brings us full circle back into the glow of the summer, but the lesson runs much deeper. I remember rock bottom, even though it’s been a while. In fact, I remember hitting more than a few times, when I felt as if all I had hoped for in my life had been taken from me — my hopes, my independence, my autonomy and dignity and self-respect. I’ve been crushed. I’ve been betrayed. I’ve been lost. But somehow, in spite of my own shortsighted miseries, I’ve stuck around long enough to see that it doesn’t last forever. The sun returns. Your life eventually cycles back around to fullness, and when it does, it’s almost always brighter than before, with a richer palette of colors painted upon the canvas of your life.
I may never tell my children of the experiences that brought these lessons into my life, but in honoring this night, the “rock bottom” of the cycle of the sun, I impress on their hearts the value of the darkness. They are reminded that the sun always returns. We are learning to value the cycle that brings us through each season in turn, and to respect that even in darkness, work is taking place. Fallow soil is preparing for the next go-round. Our hearts are healing. Our ability to experience life fully is deepening. We are learning to experience this part of the revolution of the earth just as fully, and with just as much intensity, strength, and confidence in the darkness to lead us into the light, as we do when the sun is right there before us speaking its truth.
Of all the lessons my children take from our family’s winter solstice celebration, this is the one I hope they remember most: even in the midst of the darkness, within you is the luminous glow that will, in perfect timing, spark the return of your joy. Nurture and honor it, always.
C. Hawk Croft lives in Carrboro, North Carolina with her life partner and five children. She reads tarot, makes trouble, tells bad jokes, sings worse karaoke, and enjoys putting unlike things together just to see what happens.
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