by John Colgan-Davis
“In winter the stars seem to have rekindled their fires, the moon achieves a fuller triumph, and the heavens wear a look of a more exalted simplicity.” — John Burroughs, “The Snow-Walkers,” 1866
Don’t look now, but already we in the Northeast are in full winter mode. Yes, the solstice and winter equinox was Saturday, Dec. 21, but even before that we had several days of snow, blasts of cold wind and low temperatures. And the happenings in the natural world around us have all been saying, “It’s winter.”
Glorious V’s of geese have been honking overhead for the last few days. Cardinals, juncos and nuthatches are at the feeders. Jupiter and Saturn are visible in the early morning Northwest sky, and the length of the days is changing. Trees are leafless, and we humans are in winter mode as well.
Gloves and hats have reappeared. Sweaters and scarves abound. Soup, meatloaf, chicken pot pie and fruit pies are showing up on more and more dining tables. The home heat is turned on, the storm windows are in, and shovels and snow blowers have moved from the shed or the garage onto the front porch.
Yes, we are a modern, civilized folk, and yes, we are soooo technologically advanced. But we have to be as aware of what nature is doing as our ancestors were. And like them, we have to figure a way to notice and respond to what we are presented with. Despite all of our modernness and technology, nature still deals the cards, and we have to figure out how to play the hand.
We “civilized” humans have always used terms that highlight our mastery of nature. We have “tamed the west,” “taken one small step for man…,” “plunged to the depths of the ocean” and more. And we have done some pretty remarkable things. Getting a picture of all of Saturn and its rings is mindblowing, for example.
But in our day-to-day life, we are still just like our ancestors; we have to adjust what we do to what nature hands us. Just as they had to come up with igloos, make calendars to track the sun, chart the migration of animals and note the patterns of crop growth, we also have to develop things to adjust to what nature gives us. Whether it is indoor heat or a snowblower or a fireplace, we are responding to nature. We are reactive.
Yes, we have meteorologists who try to predict the coming weather, but we are far from perfect at it. And besides, this is just another step in our ancestors’ attempt to track and plan in accordance with nature. Our calendar reflects that. The winter solstice, for example, was a time in many places of bonfires, songs, chants, hymns and rituals to acknowledge the importance of the sun in our lives and to notice what it was up to.
We were glad that the days after the solstice progressively lengthened until the next equinox came, and a new year arrived in the spring. We saw it as a time of death and rebirth of life of the universe itself. Many of our winter traditions stem from this awareness and acknowledgment of the sun’s activities.
The Yule log, mistletoe, Christmas trees, lighted candles and the focus on red and green in our modern holiday and Christmas celebrations all go back to those roots. And around the world, in countless cultures, these celestial activities are celebrated and worked into stories, myths and observations.
From Egypt to West Africa to Poland to Vietnam to Japan to Iceland, solstice celebrations mark the death and/or rebirth of a central god, spirit or of the earth itself. We are playing the hand we have been dealt in as many ways as we can, wherever we are.
So as you celebrate the winter holidays, take some time to find our what is behind you and your family’s particular symbols, beliefs and rituals. What is the origin of what we do; from where does it come? For try as we may to avoid it, we are linked to our beginnings, to those ways and thoughts and rituals that came before us. We may re-interpret them. We may disguise them. We may not recognize them, but they are there behind so much of what we do. At rock bottom, we are just humans trying to find the patterns that help us make sense out of what we have been given. Have a great winter.
John Colgan-Davis is a long-time Mt. Airy resident, a teacher, student of the world and harmonica player for the rockin’ blues band, The Dukes of Destiny.