Winter Solstice (Yule) is one of my favorite holidays. It wasn't always, tucked into the overwhelming press of events that is Family Christmas and Year's End and everything else. I used to just let it slip by unobserved, perhaps giving a nod to the first day of winter as I rushed to finish shopping and crafting and all my other obligations.
Over the last ten years, though, I've not only embraced my own darkness, but begun to speak openly about my struggles with depression, loneliness, and insecurity. In doing so, I've come to understand the meaning and the beauty of the Longest Night: the chance to rest in unabashed faith that the light will come again.
Non-pagans, especially my atheist friends, ask me how I observe the longest night. When I tell them, "I stand in darkness and believe the sun will rise," they painstakingly explain to me that of COURSE the sun will rise, don't I understand science, that the earth is spinning and this is entirely what's wrong with religion and why people of faith are stupid, assigning metaphysical meaning to basic astronomical events.
This is, of course, ridiculous and completely misses the point.
Of course I know how science works; I'm not stupid. I'm an educated woman of faith in the 21st Century, with a background in science and a curious mind. It'd be ludicrous to suggest that I genuinely believed, on a practical level, that the sun was going to go away last night and never come back if it wasn't properly called, if no one held vigil to welcome its return.
And say what you will about the ignorance of history, the ancients approached the solstices with a scientific curiosity. They observed the changes in the length of days, in a culture where the balance between light and dark and the shifting seasons of the year, laying the framework for sowing and harvest, meant the difference between survival and starvation in the long, dark winter. They were watching to see that the days became shorter to a point, and then *something* happened, and the days began to lengthen. Without astronomical tools and study, you're not going to develop a working model of how planets move around the Sun, but lifetimes of observed phenomena will make you feel pretty secure that at some point, the cycle will shift, and you start building massive structures to act as accurate calendars.
So why celebrate the Longest Night with vigils and celebrations, with statements of faith, with a joyful welcome of the sun's return, if we know it's just how the world works? Human psychology.
Through the month of December, especially in Northern climes, it can begin to feel like the darkness will just keep swallowing the year, that one day the sun *will* set and never rise again. Anxiety sets in, depression and hopelessness. The food of winter is hearty but bland and unvarying. You begin to wonder, "Will I be eating turnips in the darkness forever? Is this all there is and ever will be?"
And then the leaders of faith, the people who guide your tribe with wisdom, say to you: Trust us, the light will return. The wheel of the year will continue spinning, time keeps moving forward. Someday, yes, there will be an ending of everything, but that day is not today. Today is the day our calculations tell us that we can stand in the rising sun, welcome it back, and rest in the faith that from this moment, the darkness loses hold and begins receding. The bitter cold of winter will remain, but this moment, here, this is the turning point of light. We no longer travel into winter, because now we are moving towards the spring.
The world will keep on spinning. The light will come again. Though there will someday be an end, that end is not today.
Into every life the dark seasons come. At some point, almost every living human has had a night they weren't sure would end in sunrise. Almost everyone has, at one time or another, wondered if they were staring into the beginning of a permanent, inescapable darkness: it will never get better, there will never be beauty and bounty again, I will never again stand in the sunlight and feel warmth on my face. I will forever be here, eating turnips in the darkness.
The people who survive the dark seasons usually do so by putting faith in the fact that the world keeps spinning, time keeps inexorably moving forward, and that the cycles of light and dark will turn, as they always have, to return to sunshine and the summer days. This must get better, we tell ourselves. The world will return to balance, the cycle of the year will proceed, and if we can just hold faith through the Longest Night, the sun will return, and hope with it.
Not everyone makes it. Every Yule, in the safety of the risen sun, I take a moment to think of those who held on as long as they could in darkness, but whose grasp failed before the light came. I have, at various points in my life, been angry at them, been broken-hearted at losing them, felt guilty for failing them, and almost been one of them. But now, when I think of them, I feed my own fire, building it up in hopes that if there's someone whose grip is weakening, they might be reminded of the sun by the light of my burning.
I love you all, and Blessed Yule.