Welcome to winter
Wednesday will mark the winter solstice when our earth begins tilting away from the icy darkness of space and back towards the sun. The solstice brings the shortest period of daylight, and the promise of more daylight to come. But before that we must get through winter.
The pains and pleasures of winter vary a great deal according to your age. Activities like skiing, shoveling snow and chopping wood for log fires once had their charm. But when time and arthritis have taken their toll, they don’t seem so much fun. The crisp bite of a sub-zero wind was once invigorating, but not anymore. The only place you want to see ice is in your drinks, and the only place you want to see snow is on television.
Language betrays our deep feelings about winter. To “chill out” is to become emotionally indifferent. Ice maidens are not friendly. A freeze is a kind of death. Shakespeare’s imagery of winter is about as negative as any you can find in literature. It is the season of gloom and nastiness. “Here (he wrote) we feel but the penalty of Adam.” In other words, winter is the wages of sin.
Blow, blow thou winter wind…
How like a winter has thy absence been…
Now is the winter of our discontent….
What freezings have I felt, what dark days seen…
One thing we can say for sure about Shakespeare: he hated winter. No snowboarding in Maine for him.
The winter solstice has always been a time of festivals and rituals marking the symbolic death and rebirth of the sun. That’s the good news. At this darkest time of the year, the holidays give us something to celebrate. When we light the Christmas tree or the Hanukkah candles, we are recapitulating thousands of years of human history, pushing back against the darkness and the cold.
Ancient civilizations made great efforts to get the date of the solstice exactly right, because they were naturally afraid that the sun might never come back. Stonehenge is just one example. It’s the biggest and heaviest calendar in the world and it only tells you two dates — the summer and winter solstices. Our winter solstice this year will arrive silently, invisibly at sunset, 4.47 p.m. on Wednesday, so try not to miss it, and perhaps offer a suitable prayer. You never know, the sun might not come back.
Ever since these special moments in the year were identified they have been celebrated. The Babylonians had Sacaea, their winter festival of renewal. The Romans of classical times had their Saturnalia — a sort of extended happy hour. It was an unabashed orgy of eating, drinking and spending, which in its excesses came the closest to what we now call the holidays. This isn’t surprising given that Roman culture was in so many ways similar to our own. We imitate their architecture and their ruthless politics, so why shouldn’t we copy their winter celebration? The Scandinavians and Germans had and have their Yule Feast, a more staid version of the same thing.
These winter festivities are among the oldest and deepest of all human traditions, and for many centuries they have worked. Summer always came back. It would be a big mistake to give them up now.