It’s December: the darkest month of the year. However, rather than a time to be feared or disregarded, this phase of the year has been considered a special time that is part of the Earth’s cycle, since as far back as the Neolithic era.
Traditionally, these dark days are often equated and prescribed as a time to hibernate, or to slow down in accordance to what is happening in the natural world. The leaves have fallen and are decaying in quiet corners and ditches of the land, grass growth and other vegetation have come to a near standstill, and the amount of daylight has diminished to a few short hours. The Christian season of Advent is a period of turning inwards, of waiting for the light (of Christ). Yule or Winter solstice is a celebration that occurs after a dark period in which the Holly king (representing darkness and the old year) is defeated by the Oak king (representing light and new life). This battle comes after a period of time spent indoors in quiet. Other traditions also celebrate at the end of a period of darkness: Hanukkah if the Jewish Festival of Lights, and Kwanzaa is the Afro-American festival of lights.
However, with the holiday season starting earlier and earlier (as soon as Halloween is finished), and our Western society seeming to be on hyper-drive with flashing lights, carols filling shops, buses, and many public spaces, parties being held, and revelry all around us, we can become disconnected from this natural time of quiet and stillness that leads up to the celebration of light. We can miss out on the opportunity to turn inwards, nurture our sitting practice and give ourselves the space to work with ‘the mud’ or the manure/decaying leaves that will give life to ‘the lotus’ and spring’s green shoots.
So perhaps for these early days and weeks of December, we can pledge to spend some time in stillness, to really tune in to the natural world around us, to slow down. While it might be impossible to resist or evade the glaring lights, and the sounds all around us, we can balance this noise with the gentle quiet of a winter’s evening spent in contemplation.
The Darkling Thrush
Thomas Hardy, 1840 – 1928
I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-gray,
And Winter’s dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.
The land’s sharp features seemed to be
The Century’s corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervourless as I.
At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.
So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.