It was last year’s December that allowed me to at least begin to understand the significance of the winter solstice, as it might have been experienced by those who once celebrated it en masse: gathering together in the spirit of festivity and solidarity, sharing banquets of harvest-season abundance, surrounded by fires symbolizing the return of the light.
For most of my life, I have spent Decembers in the southern hemisphere, where the holiday season is celebrated during the summertime, and a white Christmas is more the stuff of greeting cards and carols than it is of the surrounding atmosphere. For that reason, it was the summer solstice that led to my first recognition of the connection between the celebration traditions I had been raised with and the ancient rites of the seasonal festivities from which they originate. When I first heard the word solstice as a young adult, it made immediate sense that the pastoral people whose lives were governed by these day-to-day and month-to-month changes in the angle of the light would observe such turning points not only as shifts in the cycles of the natural world, but as shifts in the cycles of the great Powers that Be.
In 2018, I spent December in the Northern Hemisphere, and in the light of a sunset walk one early evening, I found myself struck by how much more significant the observance must have been for those experiencing seasons in far northern climates, for whom the ancient midwinter must have been a time to test one’s faith, indeed.
I found myself looking ahead to the approaching solstice in the midst of what had perhaps been the darkest time in my life, as my dear friend, a woman who had been a role model and mentor to me over the past 20 years, was suffering through the torment of what turned out to be a terminal cancer diagnosis. Everyone around me was struggling to somehow find our way to any degree of understanding about what was really happening: both to our friend who had suddenly, without warning, been forced to come face to face with her darkest fears; and to those who loved her, those who had been touched by the light she had shone during her extraordinary life, those who were now haunted by the possibility of that light being extinguished. Underneath our shared silence, we were starting to fear that perhaps nothing we could do would be enough, but with no way of knowing that Gentle World’s matriarch would be gone from our lives before the arrival of the spring. As her light began to lessen before our eyes, it started to seem as though we had somehow lost our way along a path that had always promised an ever-brighter future up ahead. Our sun was fading.
I began to reflect on what it might have meant in times gone by to be able to rely on the annual advent of a seasonal celebration so universal that everyone in the tribe could be helped by it: the elderly perhaps even more so than the young, and even the sick and those who were dying. I wondered if perhaps even the recently bereaved might have found in the solstice festival an opportunity to be comforted, however temporarily, by the communal spirit of celebration acknowledging something so unquestionably hopeful: the return of the sun’s light as it ends its period of waning and begins, at long last, to slowly regain strength.
This December, I face the winter solstice with perhaps a little more appreciation for what it might mean for others who are struggling to remember that although we have a winter ahead of us, the light will, as it always does, return.
I think of my fellow activists in colder climates; those who demonstrate, those who educate, and those who rescue; those who strive to make their very lives a reason for hope for nonhumankind, but who find their own hope being tested more than at any other time of year due to the shorter hours of light, longer hours of dark, and the bitter chill that bites at the soul at the same time as fingertips and faces.
I think of my comrades who run the sanctuaries around the world that are rapidly becoming an international network of safe spaces for nonhuman refugees; these are service-driven people who have turned their backs on worldly aims in order to do nothing more but offer shelter to those who have somehow escaped the knife. Each of those they harbor is the living miracle of an individual once condemned yet still alive to tell the tale through a body and brain that will bear the scars for the rest of their days. The salvaged souls who find asylum in these havens still inhabit sentient bodies vulnerable to the elements and are now in need of being provided with the warmth and care they were once denied, in order to simply survive the winter months and see the tender light of another spring.
I think of those still confined in the facilities of industry: those who are not so fortunate as to have been rescued, but who remain on the other side of the fences and bars constructed by our prejudice against them; those who also yearn for the return of the sun, as they shiver and freeze in winter conditions that many will not be able to withstand; those who have survived the Thanksgiving massacre that took their cousins and friends, and those who will escape becoming a part of the Christmas ‘cull’ to suffer through months of life-threatening cold, only to face the horror of slaughter in the warmer months; those who do not know whether they will survive to once again feel the hope offered by the turn of the season, or whether the dimming of this year’s sun is the herald to the extinguishing of their own.
I think of every nonhuman mother whose body is heavy with the weight of the new life she will bring forth next year, but who already knows from the events of years past that this strengthening sun will bring her not joy but yet another experience of despair, as yet another newborn babe is wrenched away to disappear from her sight and her life forever. Never again to be nuzzled, never again to be nursed. Born into the soft light and colors of spring, his mother will never know whether he will even see his first solstice in June.
I think of those who find themselves tasked with the degrading and devastating burden of carrying out these acts, and the darkness that must follow them into the rest of their lives. I think of those who continue to ask them to do it, perhaps unaware of, or perhaps unwilling to allow in the reality of the excruciating pains such expectations inflict on the perpetrators as well as the victims.
I think of all who suffer within the painful confines of this system of discrimination that sees oppression as so natural and so intrinsic that it turns us into oppressors ourselves; people from all walks of life who would never want to be a part of causing suffering to others, but who have been born, as we all have, into a society that begins in our infancy to shape beliefs that cripple us by dimming the light within, disabling our faculties of compassion, empathy and reason: the very qualities that are, in fact, our birthright; qualities that lie at the heart of our humanity.
I think of those who will never, in their entire lives, see or feel the sun; born inside prison cells and sentenced to a lifetime of captivity inside the crates of filthy sheds or the cages of sterile, artificially-lit laboratories, with not a spark of sunlight to ever be felt on the skin or inside the mind or heart. For unfathomable numbers of animals like us the world over, their experience of the sun is only that of nightfall and daybreak inside prison walls: the arrival of the dark signalling the time for the nightmares of whatever shreds of sleep they can hold onto, followed by just enough light to illumine the nightmares of being awake another day in the depths of humanity’s darkness.
I wonder if these light-starved captives even know that there is such a thing as the golden orb in the sky. As fellow earthlings with elements of history and heritage common to all who have evolved on a planet illuminated and warmed by its glow, is it possible that they hold in their hearts a belief in its brilliance, even in the absence of feeling it shining on their skin, brightening their thoughts and comforting their very souls? Do they know that darkness is not, in fact, all there is?
Winter, as one of my other very dear friends once said, is a dark time:
“It is a time of faith that there will be light
Your faith in the light is not an impossible dream of the blind
Your faith is firmly supported by your knowledge
And that knowledge rests, comfortably, upon reason and upon truth
Your faith in the Light you have learned from Spring
who, on every ledge of your knowing, waits in front of winter
Reason tells you it shall be so again.”