Here on the Sangamon River, the quiet stillness of the night awakens the senses. As the nights lengthen and the trees stand naked against the night sky, full moons seem brighter and familiar winter constellations return to the sky. Orion the Hunter has returned!

‘Tis the season of the celebration of one of the few truly global phenomena; a celebration of the night that has been much revered for thousands of years and by cultures across the globe; a celebration of the single, longest night of the year: the Winter Solstice.

The electrified lights of our cities, cars, homes and shopping malls try as they will to make the encroaching darkness little more than an annoyance. But many of us still can’t help but notice the pitch blackness that now surrounds us at 5pm.

But do we ever stop to ponder our shortening days and lengthening nights? Or are they just, well, annoying?

The Winter Solstice was a time when people once looked upon the growing darkness with fear and dread and anticipated the rebirth of the light.

A 1500 year old interpretation of the Babylonian Talmud relates the story of Adam, shortly after his expulsion from paradise. Adam notices that the time of darkness every day grows longer so he prays and fasts for eight days in hopes of calling back the light. Since this happens at Midwinter, the light does return and the days again grow longer and thereafter Adam repeats the ritual every year.

Traditional age old rituals of the Winter Solstice are reflected in many of our contemporary seasonal traditions. As nights grew longer, people looked for symbols of the victory of life and light over darkness. The tree in our living rooms, the evergreen, symbolizes life over death and the candles and lights, in and on our houses, signify the power of light over darkness.

But Solstice rituals aren’t all about the fear and dread of darkness. They are tied most closely to the Roman Saturnalia, a time of reveling, celebrating, and gift giving that stretched from the Solstice, this year on Thursday, December 22, to January 6th.

And those who lament that the holiday season these days has become too commercialized should mark the words of Libanius of 4th century Rome, writing of the “Kalends”, the festival celebrating the dawn of the new year: “the impulse to spend seizes everyone. People are not only generous themselves, but also towards their fellow men. A stream of presents pours itself out on all sides.”

Libanius goes on to relate that “another great quality of the festival is that it teaches men not to hold too fast to their money, but to part with it and let it pass into other hands.” Best Buys sales associates are standing by, I presume.

Perhaps most interestingly, Saturnalia was a time when people shifted roles, when rich people acted poor and the poor mimicked the wealthy. It was a time that, temporarily at least, brought all of the ancient Romans to realize their shared humanity. Particularly in the current environment, this is a lesson we could all be reminded of this holiday season.

Here at our home on the River, we honor the Solstice by having a peaceful family evening at home, when all of the electronics (including electric lights) are turned off, we play (non electronic) games, and spend time together. This is a night when we try to have our family fully experience the darkness of the longest night of the year.

Like Adam, do you notice the lengthening of the night and the shortening of the day? And does it fill you with a sense of dread? With our electrified nights and our scientific knowledge that debunks such nonsense, I’m guessing not. No, you’re probably more concerned with what you can possibly get for your old Aunt Sukie. Or perhaps worse, with what Aunt Sukie is going to get for you.

But think about the fact that this giving, sharing, and receiving are all part of age old traditions that honor the spirit of Midwinter, that honor the return of the light, and that give cause for a sense of wonder, surprise, happiness and relief at this, the time of the longest night of the year.

From the Column “Notes from the River”, Mahomet Citizen, December 14, 2011, by Scott Hays

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