Friday, December 11, 2009

Coming up on the solstice

We are getting into the longest nights of the year. December 21st is officially the shortest daylight period of the year, the longest night. After that the days start to get longer bit by bit. Nearly every culture in the ancient world had some kind of festival right around December 25th. I've been told that the 25th is the first day that you can measure the days getting longer without scientific instruments. So many ancient cultures had a festival of "sunreturn" or something similar around that time. For the Romans, it was "Saturnalia" -- a party to celebrate the god Saturn. When Christians were looking for a day to celebrate Jesus' birthday, they chose December 25th, partly to replace Saturnalia, but partly also for a deeper symbolism: Jesus is the light who has come into our darkness (see John 1). As the days begin to get longer, we are reminded that Jesus is the light, and that he has not abandoned us to our darkness but he has come to us to be Emmanuel, God with us, shining in us.

I was thinking about that this morning and remembering a woman with whom I attended seminary in the mid-90's. She was from northern Norway, up close to the Arctic Circle. I asked her once how she dealt with the long, long nights during the winter. Her response surprised me. "Oh, I love winter!" she said. "Everything slows down a bit. We have long nights for going to people's houses and visiting, or for curling up by the fire with a good book. We think and talk about lots of things. It's my favorite time." I wonder if we have missed an opportunity.

In traditional Navajo culture, there are certain stories that are only told during the "season when the thunder sleeps." These are the deep stories, the origin myths, the stories that tell some of the deep truths about what the Navajos believe. They cannot be told during the busy times of the year, but are saved for the winter months when the long evenings give a great opportunity for talk and reflection.

Many years ago our family started a tradition that we read a Christmas story around the Christmas tree. This year we're reading Dickens' A Christmas Carol, and I get to do the voices of Scrooge and Marley and Bob Cratchit and all the rest complete with bad British accents. What fun! A couple years ago we asked our daughters which part of our Christmas celebration was most important to them, and they told us that reading a story together was absolutely non-negotiable. This had come to be so important to them.

So what does it say that in our culture, the Christmas lights all come out before the days get too short, that rather than facing the darkness we light up the night from mid-November on, and that just about the time the days start to get longer again, we put the lights back in their boxes and pitch the tree? December 26th the radio stations go back to non-Christmas music and the only Christmas thought most of us have is trying to find leftovers at 75% off.


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