The darkest night
Putting the "soul" in solstice and igniting hope for humanity
My brother is a priest, but I also have a habit. Every morning after climbing out of bed I raise the window shade and welcome the new day. On Dec. 21, intending to do the same, I fumbled in the dark, reaching for the shade. Finally it dawned on me when I touched the cold window glass: I’d forgotten to pull it down. Even without the drawn shade the dark felt as black as tea out there, another Earl Gray morning.
We’d been invited to a traditional winter solstice party that evening where a bonfire would be ignited and partiers would be drumming and dancing around the flame, some of them wearing masks, some of them just shielding their faces to keep the smoke out of their eyes.
Though times may feel like they’re getting darker, daylight, thankfully, will begin to lean toward its brighter side. It happens every year, imperceptibly so, but I always feel it in my soul.
My brother’s favorite time of year is Advent, the first season of the Christian church year, leading up to Christmas and including the four preceding Sundays. My favorite is Easter, and in the journey of my life, my birthday has coincided with Easter four times. Most recently in 2004. The next time will be 2066. I’ll be 113 years old.
There is a kind of faith that depends on the light, but some people prefer to think more precisely. Astronomers say winter begins with the winter solstice. In the Northern Hemisphere, it’s referred to as the December solstice. If you were paying really close attention, the 2023 solar demarcation occurred at exactly 8:27 p.m., MST. If you could care less, it happened anyway, in the dark, a celestial alignment that fortunately illuminates many people from the inside in the many ways we think about it.
We gathered at a friend’s house, toting holiday cheer and food to share. After the solstice bonfire had burned itself down, we went inside to try to successfully sing our soulstice version of the “12 Days of Christmas” (just one more habit), in a perfect round while our host played the piano. Volunteers draw scraps of paper to discover which of the 12 days will be their chosen solo during the song’s recital.
Wikipedia puts it this way: “The 12 Days of Christmas is a cumulative song, meaning that each verse is built on top of the previous verses. There are 12 verses, each describing a gift given by ‘my true love’ on one of the 12 days of Christmas.” According to CNN’s reporting of the TNC Bankers’ 40-year tradition on the rising cost of purchasing these 12 Christmas gifts, it would require more than $43,000. Naturally, the five golden rings must have kicked that index up significantly.
We tend to start the song over quite a few times due to long pauses. For example, if you miss your cue, all eyes will turn toward you, wondering what happened this time. Too much wine? Or did you merely nod off? Did your rechargeable hearing aid suddenly fail? It’s a simple song to sing by yourself in the shower but considerably more difficult when 11 other people are counting on you to fill in the gaps.
Over the years, our host has tried everything to make the soulstice recital run more efficiently. We each get a script and are encouraged to use a marker. I drew a giant star beside the verse that ended up as my solo.
For the past few years, I served as a quasi-conductor, pointing directly at the person whose solo needs to be sung. It all moves quickly, so the pointing gets very animated. With all the repetition, often I mix up which singer has “two turtle doves” and cue the wrong person.
Solstice and Christmas are closely aligned. The Latin word solstice literally means “the sun stands still” which scientifically is a fireball of nonsense. But Joshua 10:12-14 says the sun did stand still over a battlefield once and frightened the battling armies away. Now wouldn’t that be a nice Christmas gift, for everyone to stop killing each other and reach for that other seemingly impossibility: peace on earth.
So much of life is about learning to sing together and about choosing the right time. It’s not about how well a person sings; and it’s not even about any particular song. People traveled to Stonehenge 5,000 years ago on the solstice, coming from across the British Isles to get there – some from as far away as Europe. Whether they contributed 12 druids a-leaping or even five stone rings doesn’t matter. They were all hearty souls, joining in the celestial revolution.