Just a bit more than an hour ago, we marked what, for me, is the best of the winter holidays. Yes, this time of year, Christmas gets top billing. That said, the Winter solstice has long been the mark on the wall that my eyes turn to as the sunlight dwindles and the cold seeps into my bones.
Long before Christianity, the darkest days of the year were marked by the solstice – the sure sign that even in the depths of Winter, warmth, growth would return as the days now grow ever so slightly longer. Whether that was celebrated as the solstice, as Saturnalia, as Yule, or feasting for Sol Invictus, Western Civilization has scattered a great many major celebrations here around the point of the year when we face the shortest days and the harshest weather.
I’m hardly a religious scholar, but it doesn’t feel particularly coincidental. While my devoted Christian friends will wait a few days more for their big day, I’ll burn my candle tonight and wish you all a very happy solstice.
I’m not fool enough to think Winter is over, but it’s at least the end of the beginning. Now if I can avoid freezing to death when the temperatures drop into the single digits over the next couple of days, we’ll be all set. At least, unlike our heathen forbearers, I don’t have to worry about my larder running short before the harvest comes in. So I’ve got that going for me, which is nice.
I make a point never to let the winter solstice pass unremarked. Maybe it’s some kind of genetic memory harkening back to my 100x great grandparents who would have undoubtedly marked the long night in their own way, but it’s my favorite of the winter holidays.
Yes, it’s only the first day of winter. The promise of the solstice, though, means that every day now we’ll start clawing back seconds and then minutes of daylight. Like the other late December holiday traditions, the solstice offers hope of better things to come. If nothing else you’ve got to appreciate the consistency in branding the ancients came up with for their winter celebrations.
It’s almost as if people took a few minutes and looked at it unemotionally, they’d find the religious differences they’ve spent 2000 years fighting over are all horribly insignificant.
As we trundle towards the middle of December, we’re almost constantly reminded that “It’s the most wonderful time of the year.”
Who came up with that nonsense? It’s cold. It’s dark all the damned time. For about two weeks people pretend they’re not truly insufferable douchebags the other fifty weeks of the year. We collectively ignore all evidence to the contrary and insist that the vast sweep of human history on this planet has anything at all to do with peace and goodwill.
I don’t care about most of that, really. I can deal with the cold. I can tolerate fake ass people. God knows I’ve got enough experience at that. I don’t mind the snow or ice when it comes right down to it.
It’s the fact that I’m sitting here at 10:00 AM on a Wednesday and the sun, shining through my home office window, is now nearly at its zenith for the day – and that means by the time I turn around again it’s going to be headed back towards the far horizon and it will be nearly dark by the time I shut the lid on my laptop for the day. Everything else is marginally annoying, but it’s the 27 minutes of non-work time daylight that makes this wonderful time of year excruciating.
With the exception of knowing that the solstice is fast approaching and we’ll start adding precious minutes of daylight soon, this is just an absolute rubbish time of year and that’s absolutely a hill I’m willing to die on.
Christmas is soon to be upon us. Yes, yes, it’s all about Jesus and Santa and shopping and family. I’m more than passingly familiar with what makes the contemporary Christmas season swing. I personally don’t have a thing against any of it.
Still, though, I think we’re all forgetting what makes this season really important… and that’s the simple truth that the winter solstice is about to arrive and that within a few days the amount of daylight we enjoy here in the northern hemisphere will start getting measurably longer. It’ll be an agonizingly slow process, but with a few weeks it will be really noticeable. Instead of darkness at 4:45, it will have pushed nightfall back to 5:00 PM and it won’t be pitch black when I take the dogs out for the last time before work.
I’ve never been the kind of guy who wants to lay out soaking up the sun, but I can certainly understand why there’s a thread running through ancient civilizations that finds many of them celebrating the Sun as a god. I’m not a particularly religious person by anyone’s standards, but you can bet your sweet ass I’ll be giving thanks this holiday season that the longest night of the year is about to be comfortably in the rear view and longer days are ahead.
1. The time of the year. There’s a popular perception that people’s moods tend to improve has we head into the Christmas season. Maybe that’s the case for some, but not so much for me. By this time of year I’m just about worn down to the nub from relentless repeats of leaving home in the dark and returning there many hours later again in the dark. I loath and despise this time of year for the simple reason that for all practical purposes it means living like a mole for two months. If I manage to leave work on time and if it’s not cloudy, I do manage to catch the last few rays of watery sunshine on an occasional weekday. On a good day at mid-winter that lasts for somewhere between 5-15 minutes. So while everyone else is preparing their celebration of the birth of the Christian’s nailed God, I’ll be over here quietly awaiting the solstice and celebrating Sol Invictus.
2. Thirty minutes. That’s how long it takes my work computer to boot up from a cold start on the average day in the office. Look, I can dick around for the first 30 minutes of the day with the best of them, but it doesn’t feel like a particularly great use of time. But hey, whatever. I can only use the tools and resources I’ve been assigned… Which is why I keep a stack of magazines on my desk.
3. Bulldogs. I love my bulldog. He’s almost eleven now. He’s got a permanent limp, only hears when he wants to hear, and seems happy enough to pass the time between feeding and being let outside lounging comfortably in one of his beds. He’s an old man and I don’t begrudge him any of that. For the last two months, though, we’ve been trying to get on top of what’s become a particularly aggressive skin issue. After two month of antibiotics and medicated baths we don’t seem to be any closer to a solution than we were at the back in late October. The condition itself isn’t something unusual – we’ve been working with bad skin for years – but the amount of time it’s taking to knock this one back is far more than history suggests should be necessary… and don’t get me started on $80 bottles of pills that don’t seem to do a damned thing. I love my bulldog, but if you find yourself ever thinking you want to fall in love with their wrinkly little faces, my advice for you is to take a hard pass. I’d never deny this one anything, but get yourself a dog instead of an eating, breathing, ongoing medical disaster… unless you have a sick desire to take lots of time off for vet visits and would rather not have to worry about disposable income. Then, by all means, bring home that adorable, smushed faced little pup.
1. Looking busy. During an average year there are plenty enough times when the number of requirements arriving over the side are large and numerous enough to swamp you before you ever get a chance to close them out. The few days before Christmas are not, generally, one of those times. The real issue now is no matter how important the thing is, the people you need to provide the answers, aren’t around. Sure, you’ll make an effort to close out those things that can be closed out without needing a lot of outside input, but with that done, you’re left largely with either make work projects or simply trying to make yourself look busy. At least when I get back after the first of the year, I’ll have a beautifully set up file system already built for all of those new 2018 emails. You can’t see it, but I’m rolling my eyes.
2. CNN. The day after a bill passed out of Congress giving most Americans an income tax cut, CNN’s website lead off with the banner headline “Enjoy your tax cuts while they last.” They go on to concede that “a lot of households… will see a lower tax bill in the next several years.” The article largely focuses on the expiration of many of these individual cuts by 2027 – a decade hence. The thing is, though, Congress can pretty much do whatever it wants. Tomorrow they can pass a bill making these cuts permanent. The next day they can pass a bill that changes the date they expire to a week from Tuesday. Sure, I would have loved to see the individual tax reduction provisions made permanent in the original bill, but I’m damned if I’ll reject a reduction now when balanced by what might be a decade in the future. A decade is a hell of a long time in politics – more than enough time to apply maximum pressure to our duly elected representatives to ensure the cuts they’ve made now are made permanent or replaced by better alternatives… and bird in the hand and whatnot.
3. The shortest day. We have the solstice over with now, but it’s a long, dark climb back to a point when we don’t exist as a race of mole people, traversing to and from home each day in utter darkness. I’m sure some people will wax poetic about the majesty of the shifting seasons, but I’d be happy enough stuck on high summer with its ready supply of daytime in big, beautiful 15 hour blocks.
I have no idea if it’s actually going to be the darkest evening of the year or not, but it’s going to be the longest even if only by a few seconds. I post about the winter solstice just about every year knowing full well that the coldest days of winter are still a few weeks ahead. Maybe it’s important to me because I’ve always been more a worshiper of the light rather than the heat. Getting back to a schedule that feels a little less mole-like is just incredibly appealing after weeks of rising in the darkness, working in a cave, and returning home again in darkness.
The solstice at least marks where that trend starts slowly to right itself. You can say what you want about Christmas and the reason for the season, but maybe there’s just enough pagan left in me that solstice feels like something that should be a celebration. Solstice is the hope of spring and growth and warm afternoons tending the yard. The irony of the fact that I’m currently also working on a future blog post about hope and why it’s bad isn’t lost on me in the least as I type these words. Despite what I’ll soon tell you about the problematic nature of hope, for the moment, hope is going to have to be enough.
The winter solstice arrives at 11:49 PM EST and with it the longest evening of the year. That means tomorrow there will be fractionally more daylight time than there was yesterday. There are still a few weeks where sunrise will keep getting later in the morning, but that will be offset by gains made in the afternoon.
This is actually the second post I wrote this evening. The first took on an altogether too bleak feel that was neither desired nor intended, but that nevertheless hung over it like a shroud. Take two, here, is an effort to redeem myself by striking a slightly less emo chord.
This time of year always reminds me of a long ago English class and Robert Frost’s melancholic snowy wood. Even now twenty years later Mr. Frost’s words and Mrs. Butler’s voice are stuck firmly in my head on nights like this.
Long, dark nights didn’t bother me much back then, but the older I get the more I find myself in favor of those languid summer nights when twilight seems to hold on for hours. They’re a long way off yet, but by morning we’ll have turned the corner – sometimes that’s enough.
This week it’s a no brainer. What I like is the Winter Solstice. More specifically what I like is that from here on through mid-June the days are going to get longer. Even though Winter is just officially starting, the solstice comes with the promise that at some point in the fairly near future I’ll get to feel the sun on my skin on a weekday rather than just being able to looking at it through a tinted glass office window.
This might be a bit presumptive since this evening is technically the longest night of the year, but that’s just a bit of technicality. What’s more important is what comes after – the longer days, the warmer weather (eventually), the growing grass, and abundant critters. There’s still a long slog through the coldest months of the year, but the solstice reminds us that even in its depths, winter won’t last forever. The sun will rise, push back the darkness, and bathe the world in its glory again.
Hummm… I wonder if there isn’t a metaphor in there somewhere. I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that so many of the religions founded in the northern hemisphere have some sort of traditional celebration this time of year.
Note: This is the 5th entry in a six-part series appearing on jeffreytharp.com by request.
1. The damned darkness. It’s been said that it’s better to light a candle than curse the darkness. Still, all things considered, I’d rather be home before lighting the candles is necessary. I know it’s that fabulous time of year when the days are getting short and all, but I can’t help but think it would be awfully nice to get home in the afternoon before the photovoltaic sensors crank on the outdoor lights for the night. Plenty of daylight while I’m driving to the office in the morning is nice and all, but while I’m sitting in cubicle hell, it doesn’t make a lick of difference to me whether it’s blue skies and sunny or pitch black out there. Having an hour or two of daylight at the end of shift, though, would make all the difference in the world. You can keep Christmas. The winter holiday I’m most looking forward to at this point is the solstice.
2. Hand holding. Public displays of affection are fine, what makes me crazy are the allegedly professional members of society who need hand holding through every step of whatever it is they are supposed to be doing. I don’t have the time or the inclination to be your security blanket and dispense constant reassurance that you’re doing good work, or the right thing, or whatever other nonsensical prattle you need to hear multiple times a day to keep your little world from flying out of its orbit. Being a grown ass adult means you get to meet your own needs, not wander around looking for someone to meet them for you… because right now the only thing I can say you need for sure is a punch to the throat. That might not solve your problem, but it would sure as hell solve mine.
3. Everything else. I can’t quite put my finger on what’s causing it, but my general state of being could best be described as “annoyed” for most of the last week. While that may not sound surprising, the truth is actually do my best to ignore, or at least not engage with, most of what goes on around me. Observe it? Absolutely. Interact with it? Only when it’s unavoidable. I find that I’m much more at peace with the world and those in it when I hold the whole ball of wax at arm’s length. This week, though, I wake up pre-annoyed for some reason… although it saves me the trouble of needing to gin up a good level of rage later, it doesn’t exactly contribute to the smooth passage of the days. Sadly, that’s not a problem that can be fixed by the judicious application of more cowbell… unless you duct tape the cowbell to the person annoying you and then play it with a crowbar. That might actually help.