US Thanksgiving has past. In my house, as in many houses, the preparation for December holidays begins today. While my history is not one of shopping on this day, it is nonetheless a day of preparation. Changing altars, hanging greens if I have them (this year I don’t have them yet), playing carols (not allowed before today!).
The December holidays are nearly with us—St. Nicholas on the 6th, Our Lady of Guadalupe on the 12th, Chanukah beginning on the 16th, Solstice on the 21st, Western Christian Christmas Eve and Day on the 24th and 25th (and in some places, the whole season beginning the 16th and running through January 6th), Kwanzaa beginning the 26th, New Year’s Eve and Watch Night on the 31st—the calendar is turning to a month of winter observance.
What is this stellium of holidays all about? Why the lights? Why the glitter, the candles, the candy and the gifts?
In the Northern Hemisphere, these holidays celebrations of the insistence of the life, even when it is sleeping, dreaming life like the hidden sap of trees… The holidays are celebrations of miracles, the miracles of birth, of hope, of light in darkness, and of the darkness itself.
About twenty years ago, I attended a winter solstice retreat day at One World Environmental Camp in Spring Mills, Pennsylvania. There was snow on the ground and the trees were black, black against that stark whiteness. The meadow grass that had grown so high in summer stuck up through the snow in places. The cut corn fields looked like phalanxes of soldiers, lined up in the snow.
I went to a sweat lodge that night—my first. I had no sense at that time of issues of cultural appropriation and had not even begun to think of such things. Meanwhile, I had no intention of getting naked in this mixed company. And then the time came, and I watched all of us taking our clothes off—he was skinny and nearly translucent, she had brown breasts that cavorted as she unhooked her bra, I was fat and skim-milk-colored in the moonlight. We were just human beings in those moments.
Human. And cold.
When we finally tumbled out of the heat of the lodge, our circle rose in a wreath of steam that obscured the moon. We were happy, sweated, and exhilarated by the snow and ice, the dark and light, the moon and stars ruling it all.
A bit later, we returned to the yurt—yes, it was a yurt—where there was a fire burning in the stove. The potluck dishes were set out by those who had not gone to the lodge. We sat on the floor and talked and ate and scratched the golden retriever who visited everyone’s plates.
At some point, I had to go to the outhouse (brrrrrr), so I left for a few minutes.
As I walked back to the yurt, I stopped for a minute. The moon was a silver colder and more beautiful than any early metal. And the hills were beautiful too, but not in a comforting way. The uneven reach of the black branches, the unforgiving crunch of the frozen snow beneath my boots…it was all beautiful, but not like a postcard. And cold, yes, cold.
And then I looked over at the yurt where the small, triangular windows were half-steamed up from the party inside. I saw the retriever lick a little girl’s face where she stood with one arm around her daddy’s leg. I saw lovers sharing a plate. I saw the tousled hair of those who had been in the lodge. The candles. The woodstove. The bright eyes of those who knew that the sun would come again in the morning.
As I stood on the steps leading into the yurt, I looked back at the moon, the midnight blue of the sky, the pinpricks of the bright stars, the corn stalks, the meadow grass, the glittering ice and snow, the naked tree limbs. And then I looked at the red and white candles burning and the celebration happening, and I opened the door.
And there we were: Human. Human and warm.
There was a nameless understanding as I stepped across the threshold between cold and warm.
Like holy meals across traditions, not grain and grape, but bread and wine, our winter celebrations are gifts of Earth and work of human hands. They are the beauty of the black and silver cold of the hills I saw that solstice night and the red and gold of love and candlelight in the little house where we shared our meal.
Most of us have memories of this time of year. I am blessed, lucky, or both to have many happy family memories of this time of year, as well as some complicated ones. I am blessed, lucky, or both to have memories of times spent alone in the woods in winter and time spent in houses near bursting with Christmas revels.
What memories begin to come to you as we enter this season? For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, how does the interplay of heat and cold come into play? Where do we need alone time, where our time with those we love?
Where is our glittering cold, our golden warmth?