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The Reason for the Season

It’s dark this time of year. You know that. I know that.

But it’s on my mind a little more than usual, since, as I write this, I’m in the middle of our family’s second annual “dark time.” To remind ourselves of the true reason for the season (no offense to the Christmas story, of which we are fond), we have chosen to forego electric light (with an exception for the Christmas tree lights) for the period between the solstice and Christmas, marking the end of the dark time by getting up to see sunrise on Christmas morning. Call it an interfaith mashup.

I have always been a little uncomfortable with how our culture smoothes out the varying seasons, expecting everyone to work and sleep for the same amount of time, at the same hours, all year long, no matter the length of light, the time of sunrise/sunset, or the temperature.

But I have to admit that when we first did the dark time last year, it was clear that I had had little idea of what it actually meant to function only on sunlight in the winter, even as far south from the realm of 24-hour darkness as we actually are, and even in my urban location where various bright electric lights shine in most of my windows all night anyway if I don’t pull the shades down.

Without something to force me to stop and pay attention, I’m just as likely to have the shortest day or the first crocus or the return of the crows or the departing of geese pass me by as the next person who spends too much time staring at a glowing screen. Becoming a gardener, and being interested in wild edibles, was a good way to connect myself to the nuance of the turning year during growing season. But that falls away in the winter. Even a solstice observance on the day of celebrating the returning light felt a little odd when I hadn’t until that moment really tuned in to its absence.

And so now we tune in. When you leave off the light bulbs, a dimming of the light is noticeable inside by mid-afternoon. On cloudy days it is particularly early and pronounced. Leaving off the lights makes evening a world apart, shrunk to a small pool of light around your candle. (Or candles. At dinner time our kitchen table actually looks like one of those Catholic pay-to-light-a-candle-for-someone displays.) I go to bed earlier. I don’t disappear into my computer the second I’m off work or kid duty for a few minutes. We have figured out that there is a lot one can actually do by candlelight.

This year I actually got outside for a walk in the sun on the solstice itself—something I often don’t manage from my home office in the winter. I noticed the sun’s low angle and the long shadows and gave thanks that I don’t live within 400 miles of the North Pole (the area that gets true 24 hours of darkness).

The dark is also still a little scary. Last year I caught myself getting anxious, even afraid, as I tried to finish up whatever it was that I was unsure of my ability to do by candlelight. I felt dusk as a physical presence in a way I never had before. Present wrapping was tough. Finding small things was tougher.

This year we are a little better prepared. We left somewhat less Christmas prep for the last minute. We planned our meals carefully. But there’s a level past which you can’t make it not a big deal to make such a big change. So it is something we undertake with the idea that we can’t quite be ready for it, that it involves a certain amount of letting go of control.

I’d love to tell you that this slips me into a meditative, spiritual, contemplative state of rest and renewal. It does, some of the time. There’s some wonderful, magical moments that come out of it. But I don’t think of our dark time as being about some noble effort to live more naturally or get into a different spiritual frame of mind. I see it more as an exercise in paying attention, noticing the turning points, and celebrating how people make it through tough times—which I think they generally do better when they don’t pretend everything is normal or fine.

Here’s to the returning light.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

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