‘Tis the year’s midnight, as the poet says. Solstice. Saturnalia. Yule. The longest shadow of the year.
John Donne had it worse in higher-latitude London than we do in upstate New York. In his dark and difficult winter solstice poem, “A Nocturnal Upon St. Lucy’s Day,” Donne writes of “scarce seven hours” of daylight; he’s egging the pudding there, but he certainly got less than eight on the year’s shortest day.
Here at the 42nd parallel, the almanac gives us nine plus a handful of minutes on December 21, a few dozen of which I’ll undoubtedly waste by sleeping in. It’s a bit rich to complain about the sunset rolling up on you at 4:28 p.m. when it takes an act of God to haul your carcass out of bed before eight, but it’s still rough to watch it get dim by midafternoon.
A dead time, a dark time, in a dark year. As I write this, Congress is busy forcing a sweeping and bitterly divisive bill through in the dead of night, its authors bending all their will toward a victory no matter what chaos might follow on its heels. The latest high-water mark in a season of despair. It feels dramatic to write that word — “despair” — but not inaccurate. Lately it seems that everywhere you look in the fearsome arena of national politics, there’s somebody powerful cheering for you to suffer. It takes a toll. It has on me, anyway.
But despair isn’t new, and neither are the cold, and the dark, and the depredations of the ruthless during lean times. We defy these things at solstice. We talk about “Christmas cheer,” but this thing we do with the burnt-out stub of the dying year is older than Christmas, and it has always been a light in a dark place.
In pre-modern Europe, solstice marked the time for slaughter. It was a practical thing: Butchering cattle at the end of the season meant you didn’t have to feed them through the winter. People made a virtue of necessity, and held feasts and celebrations while there was fresh meat in abundance.
Chest freezers are a thing now, and we can get mangoes from Mexico and clementines from Spain all winter long, but we still feast at solstice. I’ve been to half a dozen holiday parties in the last week. My entire household has been living on potluck casserole and high-octane sugar cookies.
Solstice is a time for suspending ordinary rules, but one iron law persists: Food and drink must keep flowing. And so, a few nights ago, I found myself alone in the dark, in an unfamiliar town, circling a Wal-Mart parking lot in search of a liquor store. Behold, in a nearby shop window: the bright gleam of a neon sign. Mission accomplished.
“I was at a Christmas party, they ran out of whiskey,” I said, rolling my eyes at this arrant nonsense, and plunking a bottle of Jim Beam on the countertop. “Clearly you didn’t have any Russians there,” the heavily-accented storekeeper said, grinning. “No Russians,” I shot back, “but I’m Irish, so I went out for more.”
Then we laughed at our own tropey schtick, not because either of us were brilliant comedians, but because it was late, and the night was dark, and we were practically the only sign of life under all those fluorescent lights in a strip mall in Napanoch. Solstice is a time for the living to stick together. “Here’s to a better 2018,” I said on my way out the door; we agreed that the whole wicked world needed one, and she shouted a New Year’s blessing after me a little more heartily than politeness demanded.
Tradition has it that the solstice celebration welcomes the longer days back in, the beginning of the return of summer. But let’s be real: Winter is just getting started. By the end of December, the true cold has only just begun to set in. Even as the Earth turns back toward the sun and the days grow longer, the landscape all around us is still bleeding out the heat it spent all summer storing up, the pace of the season limping and lagging behind the swift-changing light. We have a very long night ahead of us.
Donne, at a distance of four centuries, nails it mercilessly when he writes about winter and grief alike:
The sun is spent, and now his flasks
Send forth light squibs, no constant rays;
The world’s whole sap is sunk;
The general balm th’ hydroptic earth hath drunk,
Whither, as to the bed’s feet, life is shrunk,
Dead and interr’d…
There is hope in Donne’s poem, and light, and an eye toward the return of summer — only not for him. Others will see that day. For his part, he will endure the longest night, not in hope of reaching the morning, but to keep faith with the dead, to observe a lonely vigil. It is an outpouring of profound grief, saved from self-pity by the sense that some irresistible natural alchemy is being worked on the poet. Grief is a lamp that illuminates him from within.
He’s very tough, this John Donne. Tougher than us anyway, with our presents and our firelit parties and our scouring Kayak for cheap tickets to Florida when it’s twenty below. It’s hardly uplifting, but I find it somehow fortifying, the watch he’s keeping through the long night.