Monday, December 15, 2008

In the Bleak Midwinter

In the bleak midwinter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen,
Snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter,
Long ago. -- Christina Rossetti
I love this poem! It is often sung at this time of year as the days lengthen and our world responds to the rhythms of the solar system. Brrrr!

We're tilting farther from the sun with each day. Can you feel it? This tilting results in short days and long winter nights. The winter solstice itself is the day we are tilted the farthest from the sun in the northern hemisphere, our shortest day. This year, the solstice occurs on December 22nd. In England, this day is referred to as midwinter. As in the Christina Rossetti poem above, it is often bleak, windy and cold.

Significantly, it is also one of two "turning points" of the year. The day has historically symbolized the promise of the return of the sun and the lengthening of days. It is celebrated with lights and greenery.

While living in England for several years, I realized the importance of this reassurance. It seemed sometimes that the sun would never return. When darkness fell at 3 in the afternoon amid cloudy drizzle, it was easy to forget the long sunny midsummer nights and the glorious promise of spring, ablaze with flowers. I'd trim the holly hedge between my garden and the neighbor's and bring in bouquets and branches covered in red berries. Celebrating with lights blazing and living greenery brought into the house really lifted my heart.

The ancient Romans used holly to honor the god of agriculture. At this time of year, they would carry branches in processions, give holly wreaths as gifts of good will and decorate their homes with cuttings. Why celebrate the god of agriculture during the cold and dark? Because, they viewed this shortest day as the pivotal point in the year when days start lengthening and the promise of next year's planting and harvest should be celebrated. When viewed from this perspective, maybe midwinter isn't quite so bleak.

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