‘Don’t let the solstice fool you:
our lives will always be
a stew of contradictions…’
Adrienne Rich ‘Contradictions: Tracking Poems,’ in Your Native Land, Your Life (1986)
Today’s image: the winter solstice
From the Latin sol (‘sun’) and sistere (‘to stay still’), the sun suspended a moment in its path, here in winter, in the south in summer. So. A simple scientific, biannual event.
Why then does it feel so enchanted?
Since Neolithic times, the winter solstice has marked the symbolic death and rebirth of the Sun; fires were burnt to welcome back the light. Yule to Pagans and Saternalia for ancient Romans, we still see mid-winter celebrations in the Chinese Dōngzhì (winter arrival) Festival; Yaldā Night in Iran; and the Incan Inti Raymi in Peru (in June of course).
It is the source of our present-day seasonal traditions the world over, and we are viscerally connected to it. In her poem The Shortest Day, Susan Cooper recalls this heritage in her greeting to Yule:
‘And everywhere down the centuries of the snow-white world
Came people singing, dancing,
To drive the dark away.’
John Donne, in a marvellous turn of phrase, called it ‘the year’s midnight’ in his poem A Nocturnal Upon St Lucy’s Day, Being the Shortest Day, noting there are ‘scarce seven hours’ until the sun is spent. My very favourite carol, In the Bleak Midwinter (to the 1906 Gustav Holst setting, please) is in fact a poem by Christina Rossetti, published, under the title A Christmas Carol in 1872. It is a nativity poem of that midwinter ‘long ago‘, and of haunting beauty. Whether you have a faith or not, it reminds us of a connection to the past, the bleakness not grim but rather stark and unworldly.
Inspired by the Donne poem, Scottish poet Liz Lochead penned In the Mid-Midwinter, transposing the austere winter’s walk to a modern city setting. Here, there is little in the sky ‘except a gey dreich greyness | rain-laden over Glasgow’ but with the hope of light tomorrow, reminding us that ‘the light comes back | the light always comes back.’
This ancient essence of the Solstice holds relevance at time we’re all looking for the worst to be over, counting on next year to be better, to binge vaccines and solutions, restore the hope and possibility of life, even the sheer normalcy, back to us.
As Adrienne Rich’s poem at the top of the page reminds us, it is not, in reality, that simple. The days will get longer but winter is ahead, and the ‘worst moment of winter can come in April.’
Still, let us count the reason for optimism…
Main photo by Eva Elijas on Pexels
Smaller photo by Simon Berger on Unsplash