If you live in the northern hemisphere, winter is coming. It is getting colder outside, the deciduous trees are losing their leaves, plants are withering, birds are migrating, and animals are retreating underground to enter their dormant states. But most noticeable of all are the increasingly shorter days.
These changes are happening because, about 4.5 billion years ago, during the formation of our solar system, something happened that caused Earth’s axis to tilt approximately twenty-three and one-half degrees. This tilt positions the northern hemisphere in such a way as to be more directly warmed by the sun during the summer and less directly warmed during the winter. In short, the tilt of Earth’s axis created the seasons and the solstices.
As we approach the winter solstice—the darkest time of the year—most of us dread all the long, dark nights that await us. And this feeling is nothing new: The solsticial darkness has always had a profound—and even mythic—effect on the human psyche. Imagine how frightening it must have been to the first people who noticed that the world seemed to be darkening and dying. And now imagine the sense of hope and renewal that the return of light brought them. No wonder this turning point in time became the inspiration for so many sacred stories and ceremonies that celebrate the triumph of light and life over darkness and death.
Even today, when science can explain the seasonal shifts as astrophysical phenomena, the solsticial darkness still has a strong influence on our personal and collective psyches. Intellectually, we know that winter will transition into spring, and yet our senses perceive a world that really does appear to be dying. Light and life are diminishing right before our eyes. Rationally, we know that the world is not coming to an end. But perhaps, on a deeper, more primordial level, as the nights get darker and darker, we still feel some of the apprehension experienced by our ancestors during this mysterious time of year.
Winter’s darkness also creates a gestational space, which gives thoughts and feelings room to grow. Just like the occasional “dark night of the soul” in which we cannot sleep because something worries us, the introspective nights of winter are a kind of collective dark night of the world psyche. The ever-increasing darkness and the space it gives us to contemplate our lives often provokes us to think about the year that is passing. This nostalgic awareness of the passage of time needs to be balanced with feelings of hope and renewal. This is why we celebrate the holidays. We engage in symbolic gestures, such lighting candles, hanging strings of lights, bringing evergreens into our homes, gathering around fires, and exchanging gifts because these rituals are intended to engender hope and create joyful anticipation.
For decades now, many of us in the Western world have been disillusioned with the commercialization of the winter holidays, especially Christmas. As we rush through the preparations and festivities, we often forget that this is a sacred and mythic time—a deeply storied season that has been honored and celebrated since prehistory. Ironically, we tend to blame the holidays—which were created to help us connect with the sacred—for our feelings of alienation. However, it is not the celebrations that we should blame for our dispirited state, but our forgetfulness. Feasts, fires, gatherings, gift giving—these should help us through the darkness, not plunge us deeper into it. If it feels like our winter holidays have eroded into near-meaningless obligations, then it is time for us, both personally and collectively, to try to remember the true meaning of the winter solstice.
Back when humankind first experienced the darkening days of winter, people felt fear and doubt. But then, as light and life slowly started to return, they learned to trust that they would survive the darkness, and they developed faith—in themselves, and in the Sacred Presence to which they attributed their survival. So the winter solstice—created by a random astronomical act that caused a tilt in Earth’s axis—provides us with an annual ritual in which we have to face our doubts and rediscover our faith. By offering our psyches the opportunity to reenact this yearly archetypal cycle of death/doubt and rebirth/faith, the solstice tends to our souls. In this mysterious way, the tilt of our tiny blue-green planet has taught us to trust that at the very darkest moment, on the longest night, the light will start to return. Trust, faith, light: This is the meaning—and magic—of the winter solstice. Happy holidays.