The shortest day of 2011 has proven to be an atypical one, beginning with heavy rain in the wee hours, shifting to seventy degrees and sun by early afternoon, then moving a variety of clouds with changing wind patterns by early evening. Whatever happens in the last few hours of Solstice 2011, the big news is, THE LIGHT IS ON ITS WAY BACK!
Having grown up in South Florida, I have never fully adapted to the long dark of central Appalachian winters (and I know, winters are longer and darker in places like Wisconsin and Alaska). Summers in which the light lingers until nearly 9:30 are great, but 5:00 PM darkness makes for long, isolated evenings for those of us who don't drive well after dark. (Note to self: glasses that aren't so scratched would probably cause fewer problems with oncoming headlights.)
But our modern winter isolation is nothing compared to that experienced by our ancestors. In Beowulf, Danish king Hrothgar's reign is described as having lasted for fifty winters, a description that leads to a class discussion of what Scandinavian winters must have been like in the centuries preceding what climate scientists now call the Medieval Warm Period, which started around CE 950 (and which was not as warm as the decades we have recently experienced). No central heat, limited artificial light, lots of snow, and no roads to speak of in the lands of the Geats and Danes--no wonder these people experienced frost as the primordial element of their part of the world and believed that the first being was a frost giant. This Northern mythology gave rise to a literature that to this day often feels cold and alien when we first encounter it. Wrapping our minds around the cold, dark world of the eight century requires imaginative effort.
But less of it on the longest night of the year than at other times. Tonight we want to surround ourselves with light, to be reminded that the darkness is a phase, one that as early as tomorrow will be begin to pass. Our candles and bonfires and lamps are figures and reminders of the light that will always return, as long as the world lasts.