Welcome, Darkest Night
by Janice Van Cleve
I love this season of growing dark. The night starts earlier to cast its blanket of quiet and peace upon the land and calls me to wrap up what I am doing. Early darkness coaxes me to sit down to supper at six o’clock instead of nine, so I can digest properly before I go to sleep. Longer nights delay the prodding light of morning, so I can grab a few more winks. It encourages me to work more efficiently with the daylight that I do have. The dark time of the year is a healthy time for me.
It is a healthy time for plants and animals as well. Perennials focus on building up their root systems during the dark time, and annuals spread their seeds. Leaves fall to the ground to be leached and composted into next year ‘s soil. Animals feast on the yield of crops and orchards and store up surplus to see them through the winter and spring. In the dark time, all nature refocuses on renewing itself, sloughing off that which is no longer necessary and nurturing the best for the new year.
For northern tribes who lived where night falls longest and deepest, the dark time of the year was a time of great creativity. Bards honed their songs and added new verses for the entertainment and education of their audiences. Farmers turned to woodworking to fashion furniture or to decorate the interiors of their homes. Tradespeople made cloth, tools, jewelry, clothes and other goods to sell the merchants when they returned in the spring. Cooks became more and more inventive as the darkness lingered and the variety in the larder grew more limited. Even today, most school and university classes are scheduled for the winter months. In the business world, new product releases from software to movies to automobiles are debuted during this time.
In short, the dark time of the year is a busy, industrious and very creative time for nature and for human activity. So why in modern society does it get such a bad rap? The ancients certainly figured out that spring followed winter every year, and they used their skills to create solstice calculators like Stonehenge to predict how much more winter they had left. Were they really immobilized in fear of the dark, waiting for solstice to give them hope of spring? Or, on the other hand, did they grumble at solstice that they only had a few more months to play, eat, sing and finish their carvings before they had to get back out and work the farm again? Ancient peoples, after all, did not create surpluses for profit or a year-round global economy. They simply raised enough to sustain themselves so they could devote their time to crafts and play.
Perhaps it was the new religion of Christianity that tried to separate light from dark, exalting the former and disparaging the latter. Perhaps it was Christians’ idea to create fear of the dark so they could make light seem like a sort of salvation. However, nature doesn’t seem to need saving from anything, except from human greed. Nature goes on, year after year, with summer and winter alternating appropriate to the latitude. Nature values the dark time as much as the light and uses both to its advantage. The dark time is healthy and wholesome. It is as necessary for life as rain and sun, decay and bacteria.
And so it is appropriate that our pagan new year starts with Samhain, the beginning of the darkest time of the year. We rest before we work. We focus inwardly before we focus on the wider world. We sleep, we feast, we meditate, and we renew ourselves so that when spring’s light returns and calls us to next year’s work we can respond with new health and strength. These are gifts of the dark time. We are fortunate to have them!