So the shortest day came, and the year died,
And everywhere down the centuries of the snow-white world
Came people singing, dancing,
To drive the dark away.
They lighted candles in the winter trees;
They hung their homes with evergreen;
They burned beseeching fires all night long
To keep the year alive,
And when the new year’s sunshine blazed awake
They shouted, reveling.
Through all the frosty ages you can hear them
Echoing behind us – Listen!!
All the long echoes sing the same delight,
This shortest day,
As promise wakens in the sleeping land:
They carol, fest, give thanks,
And dearly love their friends,
And hope for peace.
And so do we, here, now,
This year and every year.
– The Shortest Day by Susan Cooper
December 21, the shortest day of the year, will mark the turning from dark to an increase in sunlight. In the Northern Hemisphere, it is the coldest time of year and in the Southern, it marks the Summer Solstice. The traditions that recognize this passage seem to touch numerous cultures around the world and date back to ancient times in which the Mayan Indians, ancient Romans, Scandinavians and others celebrated. Years ago, my own neighborhood friends would gather on this day, say some words of gratefulness for the gift of light in our lives, and each person would contribute a stick or evergreen branch to the fire. This tradition has remained in my memory as one of the most sacred I have attended. All of the major world holidays involve an appreciation for light in the darkness as a previous article explored including Christmas, Hannukah and Kwanzaa. As we approach this passing of dark to light, I reflect on the themes cultures throughout the world have recognized, appreciate our commonalities and consider how we can learn from their wisdom and reinforce those themes in our own family.
So tonight during our typical family dinner, I will light a candle and talk with my family about the following themes. I’ve included questions that we will ask and offer them to you as well to consider around your own family dinner table.
Our connection to one another during this time is one of the most valuable. Ironically savoring our moments with our loved ones can get buried under a mound of anxiety, expectations, and commitments. When it comes to focusing on our appreciation for one another during this passage from dark to light, we can be made aware, if we stop long enough to notice, that we are more alike than different. Numerous religions, nations, indigenous cultures and popular cultures celebrate light with a wide variety of rituals and traditions. We can enter into our own celebrations, whatever our traditions may be, with the awareness that we are inter-connected and inter-dependent with one another and our environment. We can begin to explore the many other ways we are connected to one another regardless of how different we feel or seem at times.
Questions for our Family Dinner: What are ways that we are connected to people from places far from us in the world? What are the ways we are connected to people who are different from us or challenge us in our own community? If there have been disagreements among family and friends, how do we extend ourselves to connect to those individuals?
Theme: Relationship of Light and Dark
Darkness has long been a symbol for emotional turmoil and violence in the world. The darkness seems to hold fear and danger but with the light of day, the perspective changes dramatically to one of hope and possibility. Moving from short, gray days to lighter, brighter days can help remind us that there is always another chance to make a
Questions for our Family Dinner: Is there sadness, fear, disappointment or other darkness you want to leave behind? How can you acknowledge the darkness? And how can you then let it go and begin again?
Theme: Gratitude for the Natural World
It is humbling to step back and watch the changing of the seasons unfold. In ancient times, people feared that the lack of light would continue. They worried that if they did not revere the Sun God, “he” may move further away from their days. Take this moment in time to appreciate the sun, the moon, the trees, the birds and all of the natural world around us that profoundly influences all of our lives.
Questions for our Family Dinner: What aspects of nature influence you regularly? What do you appreciate about the environment you encounter each day? What are your favorite activities to do in the sunshine? What are your favorite activities when it’s dark? How do you feel differently on this darkest day of the year?
Theme: Rebirth, Purification, and Forgiveness
In ancient Rome during the solstice, wars stopped, grudges were forgiven and slaves traded places with their masters. Today, the theme of rebirth and forgiveness is carried out in a diverse range of religious and cultural practices. The burning of wood to create light in the darkness also symbolizes that we can let go of old wounds or poor choices and begin again. For children, it’s a critical lesson to learn that one choice does not determine who they are. There is always the light of a new day to offer a chance for forgiving the old and creating the new.
Question for our Family Dinner: Are there hurts that you are holding onto from the past? How can you heal and move on? Have you disappointed yourself? With the burning of a candle, can you imagine those disappointments burning into the ash, forgiven, and offering you a new chance?
Even in cultures in which they feared the sun may not appear again, they held hope. Their rituals centered around offering up gratitude so that the light may return. The darkness offers us an opportunity to invest in hope for the light, in hope for the coming year.
Questions for our Family Dinner: Where do we most need hope in our lives? How can we cultivate hope? How can we – as individuals and as a family – show hope through our actions?
There is a silent calm that comes over me when I light a candle or watch the flames rise in our fireplace. That calm gives me the space to reflect on the meaning of this time of year and connects me to the many individuals and cultures today and of generations past that have recognized this passage. May you find ways to appreciate and focus on the people most important to you during this emergence from dark to light. And simultaneously, may we appreciate our common ground and connection to people around the world, past and present, who require light for life.
The Shortest Day by Susan Cooper retrieved on 12-17-14 from http://wintersolsticemusic.com/solstice-traditions/winter-solstice-poetry-celtic-mid-winter-poetry.htm.
Originally posted on December 14, 2014.