from Solstice Dark
wrote last year a little about my family’s winter solstice
observance of three days without electric light, about its
role in making us pay attention to the changing seasons, feel
the dark in order to better celebrate its return. This year
it coincides with another winter season—flu season. Add in
a much larger household than usual, as we have some family
living downstairs from us for a while, and a job that has
me traveling more, the whole season feels rather more fragmentary
and in-the-moment. In that spirit, this is going to be more
of a collection of thoughts than a coherent column.
I didn’t get to see the lunar eclipse, even though I was awake
with a coughing child during it, as it was cloudy over my
home. But I read so many things from so many people who caught
some or all of it, or went on a more sustained search for
clear sky, or woke up especially for it, or saw the cloudy
skies and gave a disappointed thanks for the excuse not interrupt
their night’s sleep, that not seeing it didn’t fall flat the
way that dragging myself out in the hopes of catching sight
of meteor shower through the perpetual glow over Manhattan
did. These are the moments when social networking shines (no
Our older daughter had been anxious about the impending solstice
and the dark time. Usually a lover of ritual, all year she
had declared her intention not to participate, bringing it
up on her own whenever anything reminded her of it and fretting,
working herself up into dread. We agonized, not wanting to
be rigid about an invented tradition, but also not wanting
to let her give in to an irrational fear and lose a chance
at a tradition that she would later treasure as going back
as far as she could remember. We debated possible kid exceptions.
And then my wife suggested to her that we have friends over
for dinner and playing during the candlelight time each of
the three days. Immediately, all fear and reluctance vanished,
never to return, replaced with anticipation.
It is no accident that the old songs about gathering together
during the winter holidays talk about putting aside grudges,
gathering around the fire, and making merry. In my house it
was not just for the children that the arrival of friendly
faces bearing lanterns and food and games transformed our
first night of dark into something much warmer and less heavy.
I have a superstition that one of the reasons the flu has
(so far) hit me less hard than some is that I was still well
enough to make it to the annual wassail singing party of our
folk music crowd. Though I arrived late, left early, and lost
my voice anyway, the power of joining in song at the top of
my lungs with a group of familiar faces felt far from a luxury.
I’m reminded of the year someone brought along a recent arrival
from Burma to that gathering, who asked, reasonably enough,
when the singing paused and the lights were dimmed for the
ritual lighting of the super alcoholic spiced “glerg,” “Is
this when you pray?” It was good for many chuckles from a
crowd that knows more than your average number of pub songs
in praise of English ale, Scotch whiskey, “beer that tastes
like beer,” and so on (and whose actual relationships to alcohol
fall along the whole spectrum right down to non-drinkers).
But I was thinking this year that the right answer would have
been, “Actually, that’s what we’ve been doing all night”—whether
the song at the time was traditional or new solstice, old
or new Christmas, secular schmaltz, or anti-Christmas parody.
There is so much light, technically speaking, in an urban
neighborhood night. We never do get to know total darkness.
The windows of the firehouse next to me pour out fluorescent
glow all night long. This year a new streetlight pokes its
face right up to my front bay window, and security lights
from the back of the school glow from across the street into
my back kitchen window. Inside, clocks and sleeping laptops
and charging cell phones and the glow-in-the-dark patch on
the top of the cheap cold water humidifier (better for croupy
cough than hot-water vaporizers) all gleam.
If I were a cynical type, I would call our ritual “solstice
dim” rather than “solstice dark.”
But inside, a single taper candle puts all the white and green
pulsing glowing technology to shame. And outside the rising
full moon is still bright enough to quietly take center stage.
Happy solstice to all.