(6 minute read)
“Got a good one, Grammie!” hollered the littlest grandchild as he struggled to lift a thick rotted out log, far too large for his small hands. The children gathered the leafless brittle branches from the frozen ground beneath the bare boned trees. Thrilled with their loot of lifeless limbs, they hopped and skipped back to the van. On the pavement of the parking lot they stopped short, eyes widened and examined their tall shadows. “I am a giant! Look how long my legs are!”
Grammie explained Winter Solstice again, reminding them that the sun was at it’s lowest all day today, making shadows stretch out far. The Earth’s tilt was at it’s greatest, making this day the shortest day of the year, with the sun setting very early. The children buzzed with excitement as they buckled up their seat belts. “Grammie, if today it is the shortest day then what happens tomorrow?” asked the oldest inquisitive grandson.
“Starting tomorrow each day will be a tiny bit longer.”
He announced out into the cold air of the open window, “I declare that today is the shortest day of 2003! Winter Stolstissss!”
After collecting limbs and dry crackly leaves from the park, we returned to our house and set them in the center of the table. We shut off the TV and every lamp, indoor and outdoor light before dark. We set candles on the table. I bought sushi from the store so no oven would be needed. We sat at the dinner table eating by candlelight. It was quiet and peaceful, considering four chatty children under the age of 10 were gleefully plucking California rolls in the dramatically dark room. They may not have fully understood Winter Solstice, but it was an afternoon with Grammie they would not forget. All of a sudden the front door opened wide and my husband, coming home from work, flipped on the lights. “Why is it so dark in here?”
Santa Claus steals the show with his dramatic entrance through the chimney after flying through the sky in a giant sleigh pulled by reindeer. It is a balancing act for some parents to remind their children of the true meaning of Christmas. Attending Mass with all of the carols about angels, mangers, and baby Jesus or a visit to a live Nativity scene help to illuminate the spirit of Christmas. Family beliefs and traditions are learned through shared experiences whether a family celebrates Christmas, Hanukah, Kwanzaa, or something else. I find it interesting that lighting candles is a part of all of these holidays. In Hanukkah, the festival of lights, they light a new candle on the menorah for eight days. In Kwanzaa, candles on a kinara are lit. On Christmas Eve, the light of a candle represents the star of Bethlehem where baby Jesus was born, celebrating the “light of the world.“ There are also the four Advent candles lit weekly during Advent (representing Hope, Love, Joy, and Peace). Candles are sacred symbols of light in the darkness of life and also a brightness of optimism. Birthday cakes are not complete without lit candles marking the years lived, followed by making a wish and blowing out the candles.
Winter Solstice is on Wednesday, December 21, the first day of Winter in the Northern Hemisphere. An important part of life for my extended family has always been nature, and observing the cyclical changes in our natural environment. My parents chart the moon phases (waxing, waning, the lunar calendar, etc). Living across the country from them, I find comfort in gazing up at a full moon. It is no wonder that the Winter and Summer Solstices are significant days to my family. We look at the Winter Solstice as the time of new beginnings. Different countries and cultures attach their own meaning and traditions to this cyclical scientific event in nature.
The fact that about four days remain until the magical production of Christmas morning (which heightens my motherly stress level), Winter Solstice cannot come at a better time. My mother encouraged us to turn off electronics, unplug communication devices and reconnect with nature. The tiny white lights covering the front hedges, the twinkling Christmas tree, the hot oven baking cookies and casseroles, the heater, the tv broadcasting football, Alexa singing carols, cellphones alerting of shipments arriving… DISCONNECT from it all. For how long? Sometimes all it takes is a few minutes or an hour to simply acknowledge this “stop and start” or a reboot of sorts. For me, any little bit of time I can take to step away from the noise of my “electric life” will be what helps me take a breath, reflect and recharge.
A while ago, on a visit from my mother, my children loved learning about Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year. They were thrilled to collect sticks and eat by candlelight. A few years later our family was all reunited at my parents home just outside of Berkeley, California. As we arrived to their house on the hill with windows overlooking the Bay Area, my mother set out a basket with a piece of construction paper taped inside. The note read, “Cell phone Detox” which was meant for all of the smart phone devices. My teenagers were not thrilled to part with their cellphones. But since they loved Grammie and it was Winter Solstice they complied. It was a dark blustery afternoon. A dozen of us sat in a room aglow with candles, and the sound of heavy rain pelting against the window. I will not forget the energy of that space and time.
So on Wednesday, Winter Solstice, stand outside at midday, look where the sun is, and notice how long your shadow stretches out. Unplug. Reboot. Breathe in the shortest day of the year. Light candles. A new beginning.
Then turn back on the bright twinkling lights and tell Alexa to “play Christmas music.” You have a few more days before Santa Claus is coming to town. And hark, the herald angels sing, Glory to the newborn King! And to those celebrating Hanukah, May you have a warm and joyous Festival of Light!