In the northern hemisphere,
winter begins on the longest night of the year, December
21st. From that day until the summer solstice in June,
each day is longer and each night shorter than its
predecessor. In our culture the beginning of this season
has become the time of the new year.
The winter solstice is the darkest
time, but not the coldest. Paradoxically, even as the
days begin getting longer and there is more sunshine
entering our lives, the days continue to get colder. The
land and the water temperatures will continue to drop
until sometime in February, when the increased warmth and
light from the sun will finally have an effect.
This is a time when nature holds her
breath: stillness reigns in this most quiet period of the
year. The bugs fall silent, plant growth ceases, animals
hibernate, and many birds leave. The lakes and streams
are frozen, and the land is insulated with a blanket of
Winter is also a time of great
physical hardship for both animals and people. Food is
scarce. Before access to grocery stores, people had to
depend on what was in the root cellar until April.
Perhaps this is the root of the giving and sharing that
are so important to the Christmas season.
Deep snow and the bitter cold takes
its toll. Some will not survive the winter. In the past,
this was as true for people as for animals. This was the
season that claimed the most vulnerable lives; the weak,
the young and the old. This is coldest, darkest, most
dangerous time of year.
Although the winter landscape appears
almost dead, the seeds of rebirth and new life are
already present. Many animals are pregnant and will give
birth in the spring. Plants are dormant but not dead.
They are just waiting for spring to break ground or
blossom. In the depth of winter, the trees have lost last
summer's leaves, but if you look closely you can see the
buds of spring leaves at the tip of every twig and
There is a parallel between the outer
death and inner rebirth in nature and in ourselves. It is
natural for people to contemplate their own mortality at
this time. Since the outer world is dormant and outside
activity is limited, many turn inward.
For some, there is an increase in
depression during this dark and cold part of the year.
They can't seem to catch the spirit of seasonal cheer or
take comfort from a sense of spiritual growth and
renewal. The hype, promotion and commercialization
focused on this season does not help. Too much is
expected by us, for the outer darkness to light an inner
This dichotomy between dark and light,
death and rebirth, physical hardship and spiritual growth
is evident in many of the traditional holidays celebrated
at this time of year. Solstice and Hanukkah celebrations
are festivals of light, with candles, lights and fires to
celebrate the return of the sun. Christmas honors the
birth of Christ, the "Light of the World" and hope of
spiritual renewal for mankind.
The Old Year is symbolized by the bent
old man wrapped in a robe clutching a scythe and hour
glass. He is accompanied by a baby in swaddling, the New
Year that will replace the Old. These two illustrate the
sense of death and rebirth underlying the season.
In more than one way, the seasons of
the year correspond to the stages of our lives. Spring is
like youth, a time of birth, growth and fresh sweet
experiences. Summer is the prime of our life; our most
active, outgoing period. Fall is the autumn of our lives;
and for some the most productive time, building on past
success. But it's a period when we begin to slow down and
turn inward. Winter is a time of old age, spiritual
reflection and finally death. But death holds within it
the buds of rebirth. While we grow outward and become
more involved with the outside world during the first two
seasons, we tend to gather in and become more spiritual
in the last two.
We don't seem to have time to think
about these things in the more active parts of the year.
But in winter, there are long, cold nights to sot by the
fire and talk to family, read, and think. The bad weather
frequently gives us a welcome excuse to stay home,
instead of filling our lives with constant activity,
commitments, social events, and all the stress that goes
with them. Sometimes, the pace of our lives seems to reel
out of control.
This is a good time of year to
consider simplifying our lives. Instead of making New
Year's Resolutions to do more, think about reducing
activities. If we really examine our priorities, most of
us would like to spend more quality time with our
families or close friends and not so much time driving
around from one commitment to another.
This might be accomplished by limiting
our participation in so many activities that require
travel by car. Staying home with family, having more
meals together, playing games or cards or just visiting
with nearby friends might be more rewarding than some of
these more distant activities.
We also don't spend much time alone
anymore. It seems that there is no opportunity to read
fiction or poetry, meditate, or just sit and daydream or
think. Some fill their lives with anything to avoid self
contemplation. Quiet time gives us the opportunity to
work through personal and spiritual difficulties and to
become better people.
In past winters, mother nature forced
us indoors with long evenings to be filled with our
families and moments of quiet reflection. These were
times of legends and stories. We had to deal with each
other as well as ourselves during long winter nights.
With the dazzling and hypnotic
technology of TV and other electronic entertainment, we
can distance ourselves, for a while, from time and place.
But it is a numbing escape that leaves us irritated,
bored and unfulfilled. Outside, still waiting, is winter
and mother nature's lessons of quiet stillness and