Ever since 2015, I have written a blog on the day of the winter solstice, as here in the northern hemisphere we face the longest night of the year. It is traditionally the day northern Europeans mark the start of our slow journey back from the darkness into the light; Christmas, by comparison, is a relative newcomer.
Our distant ancestors celebrated the continual fertility of evergreens and the restorative powers of fire in heat and light. This year we come to this point as a community battered by Covid-19, the running sore of Brexit (which has been fracturing our nation since 2016), and the mismanagement and misinformation of an unscrupulous government.
A direction for regeneration is more badly needed than it has been for many centuries. Probably the last time our nation was so badly riven by internal fractures was during the English Civil War. During both World Wars, the threat was from the outside; whilst during the Civil War and now, our divisions come from within.
Current generations have grown up with highly sanitised and ‘coca-colarised’ traditions of Christmas. But there are ancient traditions of dark stories for dark winter days and, nowadays there is a growing fascination for the ‘anti-Santa’, Krampus. The tradition of the modern sugar-frosted Christmas is arguably a product of the industrial revolution, and a Christmas tale initially conceived by Charles Dickens as a polemic against child labour, which instead became a watered-down, sentimental fantasy for subsequent generations.
This year has been a year of loss for many families, including my own. My brother died last week, not from Covid-19, but from a long illness that was nevertheless complicated for us by the Covid-19 situation, with none of his family able to be with him during his final days of life.
I have found comfort in these darker cultural legends during my own stocktaking of the year that has just passed. They have helped me to reflect on the complexity of light and dark that is an inevitable part of the tapestry of every human life. We are now beginning to understand the importance of this process for the maintenance of mental health.
While social media is alight with the betrayal of the British people by their government, and as the queues at the supermarkets grow longer, I have decided that for me, it is not time to be merry this Christmas. As one of my grandsons once said to me, with the deep wisdom of childhood, “Do you know, granny, it’s Christmas every year?” And Christmases, like life in general, have seasons – where there is birth, where there is death, and where there is not only joy, but sadness.
So this year, as midnight chimes on 21 December, and yet again we move slowly back into the light, I will not be standing in a supermarket queue for sprouts, or turkey, or bread sauce, or tinsel – because really, that’s not what a solstice celebration was traditionally about. Instead, I shall be lighting a candle for a long line of ancestors who took time out from the joys and sorrows of the human existence that we all share, to celebrate this annual event within the culture of time and place in which they were located. And, this year, for the first time in 800 years, we also have a ‘Christmas star’ in the night sky to help light the darkness – as Jupiter and Saturn will almost appear to collide tonight, to become “one super-bright point of light” (Forbes).
So, what of our duplicitous government, fractured nation, and spoiled Christmas? I am hoping that as the New Year dawns, the time to silence, to uproot and to tear down will be coming to an end, and the time to speak, to plant and to mend will be coming around. And as for Christmas, perhaps if we can reconceptualise our winter festival in a similar way to our more distant ancestors – as a time to simply huddle around fire and light with the people in closest proximity at the time – we may yet find that it is not quite as spoiled as we currently think.
One thing that we can all depend on: from tomorrow onwards, the darkest hour will have passed for yet another year, and we will move into lighter days – here comes the sun.