Winter Solstice

First snow tree at night

Some people believe that the winter solstice − rather than All Hallow’s Eve − is the time when the veil is thinnest between the worlds of the living and the spirits. The mystic in me wants to embrace this idea, but my inner skeptic wonders if there is a spirit world at all. One thing I am certain of: there is more in nature we don’t understand than we do. And that’s okay, as it should be. There is something about the winter solstice, about the interplay between light and darkness, that makes me want to believe in a world of shadow and mystery.

The Old Farmer’s Almanac calls the December full moon the “Cold Moon” or “Long Nights Moon,” according to Native American tradition. I’ve also heard it called the “Moon of the Popping Trees,” because in some places it can get so cold that the sap freezes in trees, expanding and breaking the bark in the middle of the night with a loud crack. In that kind of weather, a person could step outside to relieve themselves, be enchanted by the prismatic beauty of moonlight on snow crystals, and freeze to death in the span of ten minutes. It could take even fewer minutes in a northern ice-scape without trees at all. Best be careful, little human being.

I had the fortune to spend this past summer solstice on the Tiglax, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service research vessel for Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. For years, I’d longed to experience the Bering Sea. It is more formidable than I ever imagined. And more beautiful. Its slate gray waters − even in summer − could have claimed my life in the span of five minutes if I fell overboard. No warning signs are necessary on that boat’s pitching rail.

To some, the whole point of the winter solstice is the rebirth of the sun, the relief that it won’t keep fading away, that light and warmth will come back to us. That’s vital, but only half the story. I believe my Irish ancestors – the ones who called themselves Druids and who named the winter solstice Alban Arthuan – might agree with me. It’s not only about the return of the light, it’s also about embracing the darkness, beyond the recognition that there are things out there that can hurt us, freeze us, kill us. Humans are not in control. We never have been. It’s good to be reminded on this shortest day of the year. Often there is strength, even survival, in concealment.

Civilizations that live near the Earth’s poles seem to understand the winter solstice best. The myths of Iceland are filled with creatures like Jólakötturinn, the Yule Cat. Icelanders are direct descendants of Vikings, who must have loved cats. Recent archeological research hints that they may have been the ones to bring house cats to Europe. But the Yule Cat is not a pet. It’s a creature of the darkness, eating people who have been too lazy to wear out their working clothes during the course of the previous year. I understand that Icelanders still typically give gifts of clothing for Christmas to ward off Jólakötturinn. You don’t have to literally believe in the Yule Cat to embrace a tradition like this, to be watchful, especially in the frigid night of winter.

We need to take care, but we don’t need to fear. Darkness is beautiful, like the silvered waves of the arctic seas. Somewhere in the long night is also a warm hug, a fire, a feast, someone we love. And there is no better time to tell a good story, the sort of intricate tale that emerges from the blackness and takes hold. This solstice, turn toward the darkness as well as the light. Conceal yourself in it. But don’t forget to be vigilant. Always be watchful.

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