The shortest day of the year, in the Northern Hemisphere, has come. It will not be the coldest. There’s truth in the saying “The days begin to lengthen and the cold begins to strengthen.” But it is the day with the least sunlight. And most of that sunlight comes at a pronounced angle, weakening the effects. We’re in the week when I can go out without sunscreen for almost 45 minutes at mid-day before starting to burn.
It was also a day to be feared, especially in the northern parts of the Northern Hemisphere. Sunrise comes late, sunset arrives early. There’s little time to work if you lack artificial light. And more time for trouble, for things that stalk the night, to do their work. Would the sun return? Or would this be the Fimbulwinter, or some other beginning of the end?
I understood that fear academically until 2007. Then, having lost power in an ice storm, I understood it in my gut. When the sun finally rose three days after the storm, I wasn’t the only person to stop and just stare at the blessed, wonderful glowing ball of heat and light. It didn’t matter that the temperature would not rise above freezing that day. Just having light and the promise of melting . . .
It is easy to understand why the solstice and the times around it are connected with the supernatural in Northern European folklore and myth. The dark is never good. Light is. This is the time of darkness, of weakened walls between our world and that of strange and powerful creatures and beings. Of course the uncanny moved in the long darkness! There’s a good reason that the Christian Church decided to set the feast of the birth of the Light close to the darkest, longest night of the year. Sacrifices were no longer needed every year in order to ensure the return of the sun, because of the birth of the holy child.
Christianity’s arrival in the North didn’t entirely quell fears about That Which Stalks the Night. Wolves, men outside the law, killing cold, all sorts of things still nosed around outside the churchyard. A wise man went to church, prayed, and planned for trouble of the uncanny sort.
One of the interesting points that Susan Cooper raised in her wonderful novel The Dark is Rising has to do with belief and darkness. One of the signs of the Light is hidden in a stone in the wall of a church. The protagonist thinks that being inside the church means the Dark can’t get in. Wrong. His mentor points out that people spend much of their time inside the church contemplating darkness and light, evil and good. That means that the Dark can still enter, although perhaps not as strongly as into other places. This came as a bit of a surprise to me when I first read the book lo these many years ago, because I’d always taken the approach that nothing bad could enter sacred ground, so of course churches were safe.
Susan Cooper, I fear, had the right of it, although now I’d say that there are some places that are refuges, places of respite from the Dark. You cannot stay there forever, not the places I’ve visited, but you can rest, regroup, breathe a little, and gird up your loins to resume your personal battles. Those of us who are aware of the problems in the various Christian churches around the world are all to familiar with the struggles of any institution made up of people. I think that Pastor Dan, the Romanian Orthodox priest in Amarillo two decades ago and a little more, was right. He said that the Church survives despite believers, and sometimes to spite believers. The same is likely true with any institution devoted to the Light that has people in it.
Darkness and Light, good and evil, we constantly have to choose. This time of year, when the sun is so far away and days are so short, evil sometimes seems closer than usual. But as the bells put it, “G-d is not dead, nor does He sleep.” Whether you believe in one deity, many, or none at all, there is always hope. The darkest days come, and the light comes, and people rise to fight the darkness, the evil.
One spark, one candle, one bonfire in the darkness, one kind word, one person saying, “No, that is wrong and cannot be permitted to stand,” . . .
And the Darkness overcomes it not.