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David Bouchier: Happy Winter Solstice

Image by Noah Jurik from Pixabay

One thing I love about December is that, at the 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. The winter solstice tells us that we are over the worst of the darkness, if not the worst of the winter. Ancient peoples 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 really only tells you two dates – the summer and winter solstices. The winter solstice, by the way, arrived at five o’clock this morning, so I hope you didn’t miss it.

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, and perhaps in its excesses came the closest to what we now call the Holidays, which 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 Scandinavian and German peoples had and have their Yule Feast, a more staid version of the same thing. These winter festivities are among the oldest of all human traditions. It would be a shame to give them up now.

I like way decorated houses light up suburban darkness, although I have reservations about inflatable Santa Clauses and plastic reindeer with flashing noses. I used to enjoy the sense of community that the Holidays created back in the pre-COVID era. It was a time to be sociable, and even convivial. We’ll have to wait a while before we try that again. Let’s hope we haven’t forgotten how to do it. But we still can enjoy the food and drink of the season. All kinds of special treats come out of the closet — rich cakes and puddings, extravagant cookies, and drinks that we’d scarcely dare to try at any other time of year. Every rule of health and nutrition is abandoned, and that feels so good.

What drives me crazy about this season is exactly what drives most people crazy — the frenzied commercialism of it all. By the middle December, we’re ready to scream “Scrooge was right!” We are encouraged to be merry and joyful, which doesn’t come naturally to most of us. My dictionary defines merriment as “Mirthful, full of animation, and slightly drunk.” I don’t mind being cheerful — we all have a social duty to be cheerful, but merriment is an expectation too far. It’s even harder to be joyful. Joy is rarely seen these days, except in TV advertisements, where whole families are routinely overcome with joy at the sight of a new car or some other commercial object of desire. Displaying joy or merriment in a public place, especially on the first day of winter, is likely get you arrested, and quite right, too.

The ancient Druids may or may not have been merry and joyful but, 5,000 years ago, they took immense trouble to calculate this turning point of the year because it meant that time was, as it were, on time — that the seasons would continue. Winter has come and, as the poet Shelley wrote: “If winter comes, can spring be far behind?”

Copyright: David Bouchier


David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.