I don’t remember when I stopped being afraid of the dark. Maybe it was when I realized that frightening things could happen in the light of day as well. Perhaps it was when I moved to more urban areas where there is plenty of light pollution so the dark of night is no longer so dark. But at some point I began to realize that the darkness was not something to be afraid of so much as to be embraced as apart of the cycle of things and perhaps even as a metaphor of life’s journey itself.
Our ability to see ahead of us only goes as far as knowing what lies outside of the shadows. Any further into the shadows and it can be pretty scary. For our ancestors, it was a matter of life and death regarding what lurked in the dark shadows; where nocturnal animals roaming the woods looking for prey was a real concern. So when the days began to grow shorter, it meant an increase in the danger of the night.
To counter-act that fear, our ancestors, especially those in the northern climes would light huge fires. They believed that the sun-god had died and they were calling forth for the birth of a new sun-god. So these huge bonfires would be built and cuttings from evergreen trees, hollies, mistletoe would be placed in their homes to protect them from a variety of ills and to remind them of life continuing.
With the darkest day of the year behind them, they would dance and make merry for the thirteen days of Yule. They would drink hearty ales, ciders and brandies. It would lessen their fear of the dark as they began to see the sun rising a little bit higher in the sky each morning. It is thought that the word Yule is from the Norse word meaning wheel. The winter solstice is a time to honor the coming round of the wheel to its beginning again.
So this is how our ancestors made peace with the darkness. And we carry on this tradition with our winter holidays. The celebration of being together yet another year is something we rejoice in. And while most of us no longer apply the superstitions of keeping some of the ashes of the Yule log in the house to ward off ill health or to adorn the house in greens to ensure health and fertility, we do get together to make merry. The fires in our hearths and greens on our window sills bring a bit of that warmth and decorations to the season which can be so dreary for many.
The words of the hymn Dark of Winter offer an important message. Let’s take a closer look at these words and see what they might tell us about making peace with the darkness.
“Dark of winter, soft and still, your quiet calm surrounds me.”
As a child living in rural New York, I used to enjoy watching the snow fall. There was this stillness, this silence in the snow gliding down to earth. Everything was quiet. There were no birds chirping. There were no cars on the road except for the occasional plow truck. Everything was calm. And even though it was dark and grey outside there was a peace that transcended the cold. As night would fall the only way to see the snow was from whatever light escaped the windows. And so only the small area where the light shone would be illumined. The white flakes would almost glow as they softly blanketed the earth.
“Let my thoughts go where they will, ease my mind profoundly”
It may sound like a strange companion to embrace the darkness. Yet there is restfulness in the darkness as well. In the dark we tend to bundle up and get cozy. There is something nurturing in sitting before a fireplace on a dark and cold winter’s night with some friends and some hot cocoa. It is a time of reflection, perhaps even of holding no thought in the mind at all except the image of the roaring fire.
Like the snow falling gently, thoughts can also fall gently where they will. There is an easiness that can be found when we allow our minds to roam free while watching darkness and snow descending. It is in this listening, this quiet listening to thoughts flowing freely that we can be nurtured.
“And then my soul will sing a song, a blessed song of love eternal.”
What songs does your soul sing when all is quiet and dark? As a child looking out at the snow falling, there would be this sense of awe, this sense of wonder. If I was at my grandmother’s when the snow was falling, I might spy a deer in the back field bobbing at the last few apples still clinging on the tree. Even in the cold dark winter, there was still the quietness of nature thriving around my home. The song my soul sang at such moments was one of gratitude of life. There is a sense of eternity as snow falls on a windless day. As far as the eye can see upwards, there is snow falling. As far as the eye can see outward there is snow falling. And love abounds in such experiences of infinity.
“Gentle darkness, soft and still, bring your quiet to me.”
With all the hubbub of the season, the rushing to and fro to get holiday preparations ready, to have a moment of gentle darkness is a gift. Where there are no glaring lights and holiday musak blasting over the air waves at the stores, a moment of non stimulation. Even the multitude of holiday parties can be a bit of an overload. Just to be still in the darkness can feel so very good.
“Darkness, soothe my weary eyes, that I may see more clearly.”
Eyes that are tired from the glare, eyes that are up late searching out the window for loved ones to come home safe, eyes that in mourning. These are eyes that are exhausted and blurry from trying to see other things, perhaps distracting things. These are eyes that have been filled with tears over aches of the heart. Sometimes just to rest in the darkness with a warm washcloth over the eyes was the perfect thing to soothe them.
“When my heart with sorrow cries, comfort and caress me.”
For some this season of making merry has become a painful memory of loved ones gone. It is hard to celebrate when the pain of loss is still so close to our hearts. To make peace with this form of darkness is hard. It means allowing the heart to cry so that moments of comfort can appear. I think many of us have experienced the crying to the point of exhaustion that we fall asleep. Darkness is the comfort in those moments. It wraps around us and holds us.
Within my own family, my father’s youngest brother took his life a year ago this month. The questions left unanswered. The unnoticed signs that something was brewing under that quick smile and jovial laugh. Making peace with the darkness becomes about living with regret of unforgiven moments. To allow darkness to be a comfort means forgiving ourselves for those now lost opportunities with our loved ones. To still be able to speak ‘I am sorry’ even into the darkness is an important step towards our own welcoming of the rising sun of spring.
I have discovered that our relationships do not end with the death of a loved one. The relationship only transforms into a different kind of relationship, one not embodying the physical plane but instead embodies some emotional, mental, and spiritual plane. Making peace with the darkness; that void of no longer having this person located in time and space is still a relationship with that person. Darkness can indeed “comfort and caress me” in such moments.
“And then my soul may hear a voice, a still, small voice of love eternal.”
While, I still have questions about the finality of death, I have found the memories of my uncle most comforting are those of love shared. It is these memories that enable me to honor my uncle and enable me to forgive myself for those lost opportunities of forgiveness shared. It is this still small voice that I hear when I think of my uncle. The memories of time spent during childhood. Love eternal does not allow itself to be overthrown by the darkness. It is still there, underlying everything, gathering strength like a seed pod in the dark soil, awaiting the day when it can blossom in full glory. These moments of darkness does engender in me the desire to seize other opportunities to heal relational wounds.
“Darkness, when my fears arise, let your peace flow through me.”
As I began, I am no longer afraid of the dark. It is a part of the life cycle. Even though I do not like the shorter days; even though the darkness makes me tire easily, I am no longer afraid of it.
My fears take on the form of what ifs… a wondering of the future that remains, as far as I know, unformed and unwritten. The future is unknown with myriad of converging factors that will unfold its course. I can either be passive about the future or I can actively pursue it with the hope that my actions will have some impact on how that future unfolds. So here the darkness becomes a resting stop, a place to regroup, to regenerate my life’s goals. I can use the darkness as a means to take stock of my life. And in so doing, allow the peace of this time to flow through me towards a new beginning.
I am aware that this too is a part of the wheel that our ancestors honored as Yule. They did this as a community. They took whatever actions they thought would inspire a good year to unfold. And so can we, perhaps not with the superstitious actions like preparing and eating hoppin John on New Years for a good year of health and wealth. But with over arching goals that will help enliven our community to achieve the things we believe will bring our mission to life.
There is within us such a wealth of support for one another that any darkness that we travel through can be traveled with peace knowing that we do not do it alone. We have a community that we can gather together to share the joys and the sorrows. We can dance around the Yule log as in days of old, calling forth the sun god to be born anew. Recognizing the light of love shines bright in each one of us and empowers us to be at peace. Blessings,
 Dark of Winter words and music by Shelley Jackson Denham © 1988. Used with permission of composer.