It’s taken me a long time to come in peace to Winter Solstice.
Just a week or two ago, I wrote my mother that I’ve always felt desolate during the Christmas season, but I didn’t know why. I couldn’t say what would make it perfect. Somehow, in nearly fifty Christmases in my memory, I’ve never gotten it right. In the last years, without children or significant other, I’ve always chosen to work and just pretend it wasn’t happening.
This year, quite unexpectedly, is different.
Human beings are strange creatures. We create a winter celebration around the sun’s rhythm. We do fire rituals and tell stories during the shortest day of the year in order to woo the sun back for the next cycle of life and growth.
Then we superimpose a religious festival on top of that old pagan celebration and talk about miracles, new life, humble beginnings, peace, joy, faith, hope and all the rest.
Then we agree the season is really about commercial opportunity. We develop traditions and expectations involving food, drink, parties, decorations, lights and presents. We emphasize giving to others out of our own resources, whether it be money, time or kindness, but we don’t talk about whether we have any resources to give out of.
Then we build it up big with music, movies, stories, a guaranteed ‘vacation’ and a fat man in a red suit, and we throw all these elements together while we drown in advertising that informs us what we must have, what we want and what we must buy to prove our love for others.
We mix this all up with broken and dysfunctional families, loss, poverty, depression, addiction, mental illness, homelessness, hatred, bigotry, late nights, obesity, isolation, obligation, duty, over scheduling, exhaustion, health problems, insomnia, guilt, shame, debt and (in some places) winter weather, smile at strangers and say, “Merry Christmas!” Or, if we want to be politically correct, “Happy Holidays!”
Ho ho ho!
There’s nothing I need from Christmas. For years, I’ve been focused on being alone because I failed in my marriage, financial limitations (another kind of failure), having adult children who are living their own lives (because I taught them to!), and my introversion, which includes being uncomfortable with crowds, noise, stimulation and drinking.
This year, I’m laughing at myself. This year, I realize it’s not that Christmas doesn’t want me. It’s that I don’t want it!
Winter Solstice, however, is a different story. Today is Winter Solstice. I’m sitting in a small two-room second floor space at the top of a steep, uneven staircase in our one almost two hundred-year-old farmhouse. The sun is coming through a pattern of frost on the window behind me and shining on my hands as I type. A crystal hanging in the window throws glinting rainbows over the walls and sloping ceiling. A clock ticks at the head of the stairs. Now and then I hear my partner putting wood in the wood stove, directly below me. These rooms are unheated, but the brick chimney rises up through them and radiates heat all winter. I’ve a garland of twined artificial ivy, red berries and gold fringe, made years ago, hanging from a shelf. I have an old candle lantern somebody gave me with a gold pillar candle in it and another garland of red glass beads and ivy wrapped around it. There’s a simple string of red lights in the other room, where my work station is, and when the early dark comes I plug it in.
Outside the windows, one looking north and one looking south, are trees; the smooth snow-covered slope down to the pond, punctuated by stalks of last year’s cattails; the two-lane road, covered in a thick layer of ice, salt and sand; and the driveway, covered in a thick layer of ice, wood stove ash and cat litter for traction. Crows enliven the trees around us; the ravens grace the air outside my windows, coming to check for victims of our mouse traps, which my partner throws out on the slope for them; and jays call harshly, forcing the smaller birds away from the bird feeders by the driveway.
This week we’ve had snow, and then on top of the snow we had freezing rain and subzero temperatures. I had to run to the post office to mail a package to my mother for Christmas, and I floated gingerly over the icy road, feeling the tires slip. The patient sleeping trees were backlit by the low sun and every twig, every pine needle, every single stem and blade was coated in sparkling ice, preserved by the polar air. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite so beautiful, and I’ve carried the picture in my mind ever since.
It’s Winter Solstice in central Maine. No tree, no stockings, no pile of presents, no special food or drink. It’s Winter Solstice, and I’m alive. The trees are skimmed with diamonds, the low sun is shining, I’m writing and my hands are comforted by my mug of tea. A lifetime of favorite Christmas music plays from an iTunes playlist I created. I’m quiet. I’m at peace. I’m with two people I love — myself and my partner. I know joy. Later, when I go swimming, the sun will shine in the poolside windows and I’ll swim through sunlit rippled water as I do laps. If the pipes freeze in the kitchen sink again, we can do dishes in the bathtub. If the power goes out I can read by the light of my gold candle.
Tonight, on the longest night, I’ll lie snug in bed in our unheated room. We’ll read for a bit, our hands getting colder and colder as we hold our books in the frigid atmosphere, and then we’ll turn out the light and go to sleep while the house pops and cracks around us in the cold and whoever is moving around in the roof (Squirrel? Chipmunk? Mice? Wood rat?) scratches and scrabbles over our heads.
It’s Winter Solstice, and I wish you peace, and joy, and a still pause in which to be.
The light returns.
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