“And the Shortest Day Came . . .”

For those in the Northern Hemisphere, it is the winter solstice, the shortest day and longest night. The sun rises far to the south and the yellow-white light feels weaker, and is weaker. Even I can go outside at noon without a hat and not burn. Farther north, this was a day and night of fear as people wondered if the sun would return, or if perhaps, this time it would slip out of sight and night last forever.

I didn’t understand this fear, not viscerally, until the Ice Storm of ’07. The days leading to the storm, and the day after, the sun hid behind thick white and grey clouds. That night, the clouds didn’t turn their usual creamy-red from the city lights. Oh no, they darkened to black, black without stars, close and low and dangerous. True darkness covered the land. It wasn’t as cold as some days and nights I’d endured, but it seemed darker. And then the sun rose.

I stood at my east-facing windows and just stared, heart singing, feeling pure, raw relief and joy. Now I understood why my distant ancestors worshipped the sun. The weather turned colder without the insulating blanket of clouds, but it didn’t matter. The danger of more ice had passed. The sun started evaporating the ice, the trees stopped breaking and crashing into buildings and cars and power lines.

The winter solstice has an uncanny aura about it, at least in the world I inhabit. The edges of things blur, and when I go walking, sometimes among the familiar I get a hint of the strange, even here, in suburban neighborhoods in one of the least-uncanny parts of the world.

This is also the time when I re-read Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising. Not every year, but the series and the title book encapsulate a lot of the season, the beauties and the dark shadows. She makes the point that when people turn their thoughts to contemplating the mysterious and magical, the Dark can creep in as easily as the Light if you are not careful. I think her books have a lot to do with why I do not mess with the esoteric, other than to avoid and be mindful of. Do you really want to open a door between worlds? Do you really want to meet the Sidhe, or the spirits of the dead?

And on a far more mundane level, darkness can still be dangerous. Humans just don’t see as well in the darkness, even with relatively light-sensitive eyes like mine. Other things do, things that are the Universe’s way of reminding humans that we are not always the top of the food chain. And drop-offs, thin ice, holes, and other hazards hide in the black of night. And curbs, and low branches.*

“When the Dark comes rising, six shall turn it back:

Three from the Temple, three from the track.

Wood, bronze, iron, fire, water, stone,

Five shall return and one go alone.

Iron for the birthday, bronze carried long,

Wood from the burning, stone out of song,

Fire from the candle-ring, water from the thaw—

Six signs the circle and the Grail gone before.” Susan Cooper The Dark is Rising


*Seriously people, prune large branches that are less than 6′ above the ground and that overhang the sidewalk and street. Someday its going to be the daughter of a lawyer who gets knocked off her bike or smashed in the face by your tree, and then you’ll really wish you’d trimmed that limb.


8 thoughts on ““And the Shortest Day Came . . .”

  1. “When the Dark comes rising, six shall turn it back”

    There is a very nice filk song done by Julia Ecklar to this verse. (There is a version on youtube.) Inspired me to read the series.

  2. “Someday its going to be the daughter of a lawyer who gets knocked off her bike or smashed in the face by your tree, and then you’ll really wish you’d trimmed that limb.”

    This sounds like an idea for a public service announcement campaign with a slogan of “Trim that Limb.”

  3. Anyone smashing trees with their face around here gets left for the coyotes, along with their lawyer.
    You can believe I’m watching the sun here in Maine. 8 hours and 44 minutes of daylight today.

  4. Yep, the dark is here… And it’s ‘really’ dark in the Northern Latitudes! They are approaching 22 hours of ‘darkness’ a day…

  5. It may not be as noticeable here in the Lower 48, but yay! yay! the dark is going away! The sun shall come again, and light and warmth and summer fun! The snow will melt, the ice will flee, the warmth will come for you and me! Happy Solstice! It’s all light from here!

  6. St. Thomas Aquinas died from getting his head bashed in from a low branch.

    In his defense, he was used to walking and thinking, like a good Dominican, but they ordered him to ride a horse because he was in bad health and the Pope wanted him fast. And yeah, he got too lost in thought to duck the branch.

    And in defense of the kid leading the horse, Aquinas was unusually tall, and the kid wasn’t used to leading horses.

    But yup, that is why Aquinas died relatively young. Low branch.

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