Here in the Northern Hemisphere we are fast approaching the shortest day. I have been keeping track for a couple of weeks. Right now, on December 18, following what had been our steady progress into the dark, though stuck for the past three days at 9 hours, 5 minutes of daylight, today we are down to just 9 hours, 4 minutes. It will be thrilling to see the turn toward the light in a few days! Maybe I will post a BREAKING NEWS bulletin here!
Do you know this solstice poem by Susan Cooper? It was written for the Christmas Revels in 1977, and is still received with deep enthusiasm when it is presented at every Revels since.
The Shortest Day
And so the Shortest Day came, and the year died
And everywhere down the centuries of the snow-white world
Came people singing, dancing,
To drive the dark away.
They lighted candles in the winter trees;
They hung their homes with evergreen;
They burned beseeching fires all night long
To keep the year alive.
And when the new year's sunshine blazed awake
They shouted, revelling.
Through all the frosty ages you can hear them
Echoing behind us - listen!
All the long echoes, sing the same delight,
This Shortest Day,
As promise wakens in the sleeping land:
They carol, feast, give thanks,
And dearly love their friends,
And hope for peace.
And now so do we, here, now,
This year and every year.
People lighted candles in the trees, and burned fires, beseeching the dark to lift and the light to rush in. We don’t use lighted candles in our trees these days (though years ago I did, just three of them in antique Victorian holders my father gave me, lit only for moments as the children rushed in to find their stockings—but I gave that up when there was a small but scary accident—still, though—real candles…), and most places do not set bonfires alight in the cold and dark night.
But we utter other pleas into the dark, we implore in other ways that the dark shall be driven away.
At the church I go to, a lively place, there is the Unpageant which will happen the Sunday before Christmas. In the pews are found small bits and pieces of costumes. You can be a sheep, or a shepherd, or one of the Kings or angels. There’s a Baby Jesus, one of our real babies of course, and as the old story is read, the sheep or Kings or whoever is named comes forward to gather around the Baby. If your pew is so far in the back that they’ve run out of costume bits, you’re a villager. Last year our senior minister was a sheep. I show a picture of him with his ears. There is cheer and joy amid the dark mystery of the story.
And of course there is the singing of Messiah. For years we have been attending the concerts of Boston Baroque, which include Messiah. This year we got an invitation to come to its dress rehearsal. There were only half a dozen others in the concert hall, not one in front of me. I’d brought my score, and followed every note and every word, and they seemed to be playing and singing just for me. The bass/baritone soloist, a young man with elegant dreadlocks cascading a yard down his back, offered the glorious gift of a voice which seemed to fill the hall with light as if from some undiscernible source gleaming beyond the dark.
Next day we went to sort of a sing-along mounted by the Handel and Haydn Society. Some of their chorus were there in Faneuil Hall, and their brass players, as well as a couple of young student groups which have been brought along in schools by H&H. The young people were resplendent in black and red, and sang earnestly. Lots of us in the audience (many family and friends of the kids I think) also wore red, altogether a festive affair. But the best part, I thought, was lifting our many voices to mingle with those of the past who spoke in this hallowed place: James Otis in 1765, protesting the Stamp Act; Samuel Adams; General Lafayette; Daniel Webster eulogizing John Adams and Thomas Jefferson; Charles Sumner and Frederick Douglass, decrying slavery; John Kennedy; and the many judges who have addressed groups of brand-new Americans at their citizenship ceremonies held here. All of us raising our voices against the dark.
When we came out of the sing-along, we bought fresh chocolate chip cookies and while we ate them, admired the great Christmas tree at Quincy Market glittering with thousands of lights. See how hard we will work to make light amidst the dark! All those lights! Everybody taking selfies with the sparkling tree as backdrop!
In spite of the solemn mysteries of the season, and the primitive fear of the dark—or perhaps because of these, people around here do light-hearted things, often involving their cars. I didn’t manage to get a picture of a truck with a wreath and red bow on its front bumper, but I did note the car wearing jaunty antlers. See? A good chuckle will go far to drive away the dark.
We too hang our homes with evergreens. Every year Mount Auburn Cemetery, where I volunteered with our late daughter Alyson, holds a wreath-making party. Alyson and I loved this event; she was a consummate artist and her wreath was always the most breath-taking of any of them. This year I went, alone now, and I made my wreath, though I cried the whole time. I used only white things on my wreath, except for a bright red cardinal perched at the top. I think Als would have liked it.
So: with lights and laughter, songs and the ever-green, we try to drive the dark away. I think it may be working. Is it working?